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Quick Fix Isn't Enough to Cure the INS

November 18, 2001|FRANK del OLMO | Frank del Olmo is an associate editor of The Times

Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft's proposal last week to revamp the the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service is a step in the right direction. But it neglects one of the most important aspects of immigration in this country: that it is primarily about fluctuating labor needs within our own borders.

Ashcroft got one thing right. The INS should be broken into two agencies: one to protect our borders and investigate violators of immigration law and another to process paperwork--residency permits and applications for political asylum and citizenship.

Ashcroft's plan for better coordinated immigration law enforcement is especially welcome in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, given that at least four of the perpetrators apparently entered the country illegally.

But revamping the INS is not an issue of just more money and manpower for law enforcement.

Indeed, U.S. immigration policy has been focused largely on better law enforcement for the last decade, during which time both the agency's budget and manpower have increased dramatically with little appreciable effect on the flow of illegal immigrants into this country.

To understand why, it helps to recall a 1972 federal investigation of corruption in what, back then, was the INS' biggest and busiest unit: the southwest regional office.

It is mind-boggling today--when half the illegal immigrants the INS arrests every year are Mexicans--to recall that as recently as the '70s the INS had just one regional office in charge of the 2,000-mile-long Mexican border. But that organizational structure dated from a time when most immigrants entered this country through ports on the East Coast, most notably New York's Ellis Island, and the U.S.-Mexico border was largely open and peaceful.

Operation Clean Sweep, as the 1972 probe was called, found some cases of outright graft. But mostly it found a lot of mismanagement by an old-boy network of supervisors who had been hired into the INS at the start of World War II.

Known as the "Class of '41," many had long, admirable INS careers. But they were not up to the task of dealing with new challenges the agency faced starting in the 1970s.

The biggest change that resulted from Operation Clean Sweep was a major reorganization of the INS by the tough former Marine commandant, Leonard Chapman, whom President Nixon named to run the agency. Among other things, Chapman divided responsibility for the busy Mexican border among several new district offices. And he pressured most of the Class of '41 into retirement.

Because of this reorganization, the INS is better run now. Unfortunately, the challenges it faces continue to change faster than the agency can adapt to meet them. It is these challenges that a simple breakup into two agencies does not address.

Consider how the demand for immigrant labor in this country has shifted in recent years. Agriculture and the service industry still employ mostly immigrant workers. But who could have foreseen the demand for foreign computer specialists by companies such as Microsoft? Or that food processing firms from Nebraska to North Carolina would start recruiting Mexican workers because they could not find enough U.S. citizens to fill their labor needs?

This demand has shifted the political dialogue about immigration away from "them" invading us--a mind-set Chapman, with his military background, did more than anyone else to promote--to the U.S. trying to find ways to make use of, and better control, immigration to our national advantage.

Indeed, the biggest problem I see with the administration's INS reorganization plan is that it includes no provision for monitoring the constant flux in our labor market created by a global economy. A Bureau of Immigration Services might better fit into the Department of Labor, which tracks those trends.

A new immigration bureau also will need to be linked with the Department of Health and Human Services. After all, public hospitals and other local agencies (like schools) are among the first to notice an influx of immigrants into a community. And the failure of the federal government to help local governments deal with those new residents can generate a political backlash against immigrants. California's late, unlamented Proposition 187 is an example.

So if the travails of the Class of '41 offer any lesson in 2001, it is that even the most dramatic reorganization of the INS may not be enough to meet the challenges immigration will pose for this country in the 21st century.

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