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INS Ends Life as Separate Agency

Its absorption by Homeland Security raises concerns.

March 01, 2003|Patrick J. McDonnell | Times Staff Writer

Today, in a colossal bureaucratic reshuffle, the long-assailed Immigration and Naturalization Service will cease to exist -- a move causing widespread anxiety among groups that serve immigrant populations and the agency's 35,000 workers.

The many duties now handled by the INS are being incorporated into the new Department of Homeland Security. Despite a broad consensus that the immigration service is seriously mismanaged, the government's vague plans for how the new agency will work have raised fears that service and efficiency could deteriorate.

"The system's not working very well now, and all indications are that it could get worse," said Carl Shusterman, an immigration attorney in Los Angeles and former INS counsel here.

The potential for problems is particularly acute in California, where more than one in four residents are foreign-born. The state is home to the nation's largest immigrant population by far -- more than 9 million, according to census data, more than a quarter of the national total. California is also home to about a third of the nation's population of illegal immigrants, according to government estimates.

The government's plans call for the principal jobs of the INS to be parceled out among several new bureaus in the Homeland Security department, a behemoth bureaucracy born in response to the Sept. 11 attacks.

Under the new blueprint, the INS' enforcement and service responsibilities will be separated and then recombined with tasks now handled by the Customs Service and agriculture inspectors. The official makeover motto: "One Face at the Border."

Even fairly senior-level INS officials are in the dark about how that is all supposed to work.

At a recent meeting with inquisitive immigration attorneys in Los Angeles, senior agency managers explained that they were waiting for guidance from Washington, where dozens of working groups are said to be hammering out details.

"Right now, we don't hear much in the field," said Wayne K. Mills, acting INS deputy district director in Los Angeles.

Added Kevin Jeffrey, who heads the district's investigations branch: "I honestly don't know what we're going to be doing a month from now."

In their few public statements, managers of the homeland security department have vowed that good times are ahead.

"I'm confident we can use this new structure to do things better, and to provide a safer America, and at the same time provide better services for the immigrant population," said Asa Hutchinson, the former Drug Enforcement Administration chief who heads the new Border and Transportation Security Directorate. "Now, is it going to be perfect? No."

The agency's broad mandate includes processing millions of applications annually for an immense and complex array of benefits, while also being entrusted with the sensitive task of guarding the nation's land borders, airports and seaports.

On Wednesday, the INS launched a public relations campaign aimed at easing concerns about its imminent demise.

The agency is distributing banners, posters and pamphlets nationwide emphasizing that all current INS forms and documents remain valid.

"Yes, the INS technically ceases to exist at the end of this month, but we are committed to making this transition as seamless and smooth as possible," said Acting INS Commissioner Michael Garcia.

Not everyone is reassured. Interviews with those waiting for service at the Los Angeles INS office indicated that few members of the public know about the impending change. But INS officials said some panicked immigrants have contacted them, worried that pending paperwork -- some of which has been in the pipeline for years -- could be tossed aside.

One of the agency's lingering legacies is a backlog of more than 5 million applications, many still in paper format and not computerized.

Others wonder if their green cards (signifying lawful residence status) will expire as of today. (They won't, officials said.)

In contrast to the public, INS employees are acutely aware that change is coming. They have been circulating rumors of large-scale personnel shifts. Managers have had to reassure edgy staffers that their jobs will mostly stay the same in the short term, as will their bosses, salaries, benefits and union representation.

The INS, especially the Border Patrol, with its 10,000 uniformed officers, has suffered a significant loss of seasoned employees who have retired or fled to other jobs in and out of government.

"Employees should understand that they're still going to work for the same supervisor, in the same office, doing the same job, for some time yet," said one electronic message circulated among INS personnel last week.

Groups that lobby on behalf of immigrants worry that the mixing of duties could lead to mistreatment of immigrants.

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