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RIGHTS AND THE NEW REALITY

A Good Job for a New INS

July 26, 2002

Somewhere, the fuse on the next terrorist strike against the United States quietly sizzles. Agencies scramble to cut it before the all-but-inevitable bang. And so the Justice Department this week announced a plan to enforce a law requiring all noncitizens to promptly report any change of residence to the Immigration and Naturalization Service. And so, predictably, some immigrant advocates cried foul.

In the months since 9/11, Americans have grappled with the delicate balance between individual rights and the need for security. Troubling questions continue to arise over complex matters such as when, if ever, immigrant suspects can be legitimately detained without due process. Whether foreigners should let their host country know where they're living, however, hardly ranks as a tough call. But even such a common-sense policy will lead to increased chaos until the INS tackles a more imminent threat to the nation's safety: the agency's own incompetence.

The residence reporting law, which has been on the books largely unnoticed for 50 years, will apply to all immigrants in the U.S. But just processing the updates from the 10 million here legally--more than 1 million just in Los Angeles--is a massive job. Today's INS would almost certainly botch it, creating even more of a bureaucratic nightmare for immigrants already plagued by the agency's sloppy paperwork and erratic policies.

Fortunately, the INS is undergoing a major makeover. With luck and aggressive dogging by Congress, the new INS, in whatever form it takes, will be sufficiently efficient to contend with the avalanche of data--especially if the agency starts slowly, initially applying the reporting requirement only to newcomers.

Even before addressing the logistics, though, someone needs to write fairness into the law, with a guarantee that the immigrants who fail to comply will almost invariably face no harsher a penalty than a fine. Only in the rarest case--a terrorism suspect whom the judicial system might otherwise set free--should the government be allowed to use failure to report a residency change as an expedient to deport someone. And then only with full due-process protections.

With those adjustments, the residency reporting requirement will prove a sensible way for the nation to begin getting a grip on the immigration free-for-all that makes it so absurdly easy for a tiny number of potential mass murderers to disappear amid the law-abiding masses. It's the sort of reasoned, circumscribed adjustment that must be made as people living in the U.S.--citizens and foreigners alike--figure out how to maintain both freedom and security in the age of terrorism.

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