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In their 113-year history, the nation's immigration...

March 16, 2003

In their 113-year history, the nation's immigration services have never been well run. The Treasury, Commerce, Labor and Justice departments each had control of what is now called the Immigration and Naturalization Service, and none managed the task effectively.

Now the newly created Homeland Security Department gets a shot. So far, it's off target.

As the actions of 19 foreign nationals made clear in September 2001, even this nation of immigrants can't afford to let people traipse willy-nilly across its borders and then disappear. Coordinating immigration services within an agency geared to fighting terrorists makes sense. But officials will need more finesse in their efforts to welcome legal immigrants, respectfully hold back or deport illegal immigrants and aggressively hunt down the aspiring mass murderers who have slipped in or are trying to.

The government intends to separate the agency's enforcement and service responsibilities and recombine them into three main bureaus within the Homeland Security Department. But its plan for the changeover remains vague. And time is running out.

The INS technically ceases to exist at the end of March. Yet, as Patrick J. McDonnell reported in The Times this month, senior agency managers say they are still waiting for guidance from Washington. Americans have a right to be jittery when Secretary Tom Ridge is so quick to declare Code Orange alerts and so slow to put in place the protections that are supposed to minimize the threat in the first place. And the 643,000 people waiting to become Americans have a right to frustration as their citizenship paperwork inches through the tangled bureaucratic pipeline.

The crux of making the new agencies work is coordination. So far, however, no one is able to say how the different agencies will keep each other apprised of the data they're crunching or the actions they're taking.

Ridge needs to name one person, an immigration boss with proven knowledge of the complex issues, to oversee the three department heads. That person should report directly to Ridge. His or her first move should be to replace the agencies' data processing hodgepodge with a crackerjack computer system.

At the moment, about 2 million applications for legal residency, citizenship and asylum languish in antique computers and on paper.

When Bush appointed Ridge to head the new department, he called America's security needs urgent. Ridge needs to remind the president of that and ask him for more money so that the agencies he oversees can keep this nation of immigrants at once hospitable and protected.

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