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Immigration And The Department Of Homeland Security
by National Immigration Forum

"Immigration is not a problem to be solved. It is the sign of a confident and successful nation. And people who seek to make America their home should be met in that spirit by representatives of our government. New arrivals should be greeted not with suspicion and resentment, but with openness and courtesy."
President George W. Bush
July 10, 2001
Ellis Island, New York

Washington, DC - The National Immigration Forum, one of the nation's premier immigration policy organizations, is deeply concerned that subsuming the government's immigration functions under the proposed Department of Homeland Security could, over time, undermine America's proud tradition as a nation of immigrants and a beacon of hope for refugees.

The United States is facing a new challenge, the scourge of international terrorism, and clearly the federal government has an obligation to rise to this challenge. However, at the same time we take urgent measures to protect our nation, we also must endeavor to protect our values, traditions, and freedoms. With respect to immigration, the specific challenge is to find the means to keep out potential terrorists who want to destroy this country at the same time we admit newcomers who want to help build America.

Since 9/11, the National Immigration Forum has worked with Congress and the Administration to fashion immigration-related measures that ensure we remain a nation of laws and a nation of immigrants. For example,

  • We supported the Border Security Act, a measure recently signed into law, which takes a number of steps to create layers of security by ensuring that useful intelligence on potential terrorists is shared with the nation's gatekeepers in real time.
  • We supported the Bush Administration's proposal to restructure the Immigration and Naturalization Service, an approach reflected in bipartisan Senate legislation sponsored by Senators Kennedy and Brownback.
  • We supported the "smart borders" agreements recently concluded with our neighbors Canada and Mexico to improve cooperation on border security and the legal passage of goods and people.
All of these measures strike an intelligent balance between keeping out those who mean us harm and letting in those who mean us well; they isolate terrorism without isolating America; they protect our nation as well as our heritage as a nation of immigrants. Indeed, these measures are consistent with the tone set by President Bush, INS Commissioner Ziglar, and Congressional leaders from both parties who deserve credit for rightfully distinguishing between a handful of murderous terrorists and the millions who come to America to work, study, engage in commerce, and build a better life.

Now we are confronted with this proposal to create a Department of Homeland Security. By placing all immigration functions into the new Department, the proposal seems to suggest that all immigrants and visitors will be greeted with suspicion and resentment, viewed through the lens of counterterrorism, in direct contradiction to the tone set by many of our nation's leaders since 9/11. Operationally, it is hard to imagine that a federal agency whose primary mission is to deter terrorism will be able to strike and maintain an appropriate balance between admitting newcomers and deterring security threats.

What now? Remaining True to Longstanding Principles for Restructuring the INS

For years, immigrant advocates have called for a sweeping overhaul of the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Our principles have been and continue to be as follows: 1) separate, coordinate, and balance immigration services and immigration enforcement functions; 2) have a strong Chief Executive Officer accountable for coordinating and balancing these complementary functions; and 3) adequately fund services. In fact, these principles are at the heart of S. 2444, the Kennedy-Brownback INS restructuring bill, as well as the Bush Administration's own restructuring plan, announced by Attorney General Ashcroft on November 11, 2001. As the Attorney General said at that time, "[u]nder the plan, clear and separate chains of command for the agency's service function and enforcement function are created. Efficiency is improved by eliminating layers of management between field offices and headquarters, and accountability is promoted by providing overall direction under a single agency head..."

The question we face now is how do we apply these principles in the new context of a proposal for a Department of Homeland Security? Given the political momentum behind the Homeland Security proposal, it is improbable that all or most of the Immigration and Naturalization Service will be kept out of the new Department. We understand and respect the views of those who advocate for keeping immigration services in the Department of Justice, but most likely this would mean that services and enforcement would be in separate agencies. We believe that it remains essential to have the enforcement and service functions linked, coordinated, and balanced in the same department under the direction of a strong CEO.

Therefore, the National Immigration Forum has decided to support the following proposal: Take the immigration service and enforcement functions out of the proposed "Border and Transportation Security" branch of the proposed agency; create a separate fifth branch of the Department of Homeland Security called Immigration Affairs; and under this branch, have the separated but coordinated immigration service and enforcement functions overseen by an Undersecretary of Immigration Affairs with the clear authority to manage both components. This proposal comports with the overall construct proposed by the Administration last year, is consistent with the restructuring principles that the National Immigration Forum and other immigrant advocates have subscribed to for many years, and at least offers the prospect of a restructured, well-managed, and balanced immigration agency.

In addition, the National Immigration Forum: supports the creation of a strong civil rights monitoring and oversight function within the Department of Homeland Security, believes overseas visa adjudication authority should remain at the Department of State, agrees with the proposal to make the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR) an independent agency, and supports the proposal to move the responsibility for the care of unaccompanied minor children to the Department of Health and Human Services. Furthermore, at a time when immigrants comprise 11% of the nation's population, it is worth noting that the Administration's proposal continues a longstanding federal tradition of doing little or nothing to promote the inclusion and integration of newcomers into American communities.

Let us be clear. This specific proposal we support may be the most realistic and preferable given the circumstances, but the direction of this debate is deeply troubling to those of us who are committed to our nation's heritage as a nation of immigrants. However Congress and the Administration reorganize the federal government and the federal immigration functions, we will be watching and engaging to ensure that immigration remains central to our nation's future and that our government's treatment of immigrants is fair and balanced.

About The Author

The preceding is a statement by the National Immigration Forum, the nation's leading pro-immigrant policy group. The purpose of the National Immigration Forum is to embrace and uphold America's tradition as a nation of immigrants. The Forum advocates and builds public support for public policies that welcome immigrants and refugees and that are fair and supportive to newcomers in our country.

The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the opinion of ILW.COM.