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Remarks of Acting Commissioner Rooney
Center for Migration Studies
National Legal Conference on Immigration and Refugee Policy
Hyatt Regency Hotel
Washington, D.C.
April 5, 2001

Good morning. I'm delighted and honored that my first address as Acting Commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service is to such a knowledgeable audience, and one with familiar faces.

When Attorney General Ashcroft called to ask if I were willing to serve as acting commissioner, beginning April 2, I didn't hesitate in answering "yes." As a lifelong, diehard fan, how could I resist taking over as commissioner, especially on opening day? Only when it was time to step up to the plate did I realize he was talking about being commissioner of INS, not Major League Baseball. Well, at least I get to toss out the first pitch at your conference.

I may be on a new team, but I'm not new to the game. As noted in the introduction, I came to INS from the Executive Office for Immigration Review, where I have been serving as executive director since January 1999. A few years back, I served as deputy director of EOIR. I know that compared to most of you I'm still a rookie, but I have enough experience to understand the complexity and far-reaching implications of immigration policy, as well as the enormous challenges INS and other agencies face in carrying it out.

However, there is one question, which is probably foremost in your minds, that I can't fully answer yet: What is the Bush Administration's immigration agenda? That's because the administration is still formulating the answer.

The answer to this question has never been more critical. Not since the turn of the last century has the United States experienced an era of immigration as strong as the one now underway. Although the final figures are not yet available, preliminary indications are that we welcomed more newcomers since 1991 than in any decade in the nation's history, including the record 8.8 million people who arrived here between 1901 and 1910. Granted, today's newcomers constitute a considerably smaller percentage of the total U.S. population than their counterparts did a century ago, but the implications of this new, historic wave of immigrants cannot be overstated.

At the same time, we have been experiencing unprecedented pressures created by illegal immigration, both at our borders and in the nation's interior. While U.S. history illustrates how legal immigration strengthens and enriches the fabric of our nation, it has also shown the importance of enforcing the rule of law to prevent those not legally entitled to enter from doing so.

Only when we protect our borders and uphold our immigration laws can we continue to have the confidence to welcome new immigrants and the contributions they make. And only when those who have no right to come here are blocked from entering and those who have no right to remain are repatriated can we overcome unwarranted suspicions against those who have every right to live, work, and participate in this society.

The fact that the United States is both a nation of immigrants and a nation of laws is what makes formulating immigration policy so complex. These dual, sometimes conflicting, characteristics are also what make INS' mission one of the most challenging in the federal government. We are charged with facilitating legal immigration and enforcing our nation's laws to combat illegal immigration.

The new administration clearly recognizes that improved U.S.-Mexican relations is an essential building block. This is demonstrated by how quickly it established a joint migration working group with Mexico. After spending most of yesterday attending the group's first meeting, I can tell you that it's not for show. Both sides are serious and committed to succeeding.

Numerous proposals are already on the table, and the White House has indicated it is willing to consider almost all of them.

Even though the administration is still formulating its immigration agenda and charting its course for INS, President Bush has made his ultimate goal clear -- providing timely, high-quality services to legal immigrants on a consistent basis nationwide, while enforcing our nation's immigration laws in a balanced and fair manner that fully respects people's rights. It's a goal we all share, and one toward which the previous administration worked diligently for eight years.

To keep pace with the historic influx of newcomers, both legal and illegal, INS has undergone a remarkable transformation in the last decade. This proud agency, with the strong support of Congress, reversed decades of neglect that had left INS unable to fulfill its responsibilities to the American people. The agency received an unprecedented level of new resources. Our budget tripled, reaching nearly $5 billion this year, while our overall workforce nearly doubled to more than 32,000 employees today.

INS is not just a bigger agency; it's also a better one -- much better. This marked improvement is rooted as much in the vision of my immediate predecessor, Doris Meissner, as it is in the record resources INS received. I must thank her for her efforts, because they've made my job easier, although I haven't found it an easy one.

Greater resources, although desperately needed, were not a sufficient guarantee of improved performance. To do that, INS had to develop coherent, comprehensive strategies for both enforcement and services that would ensure these resources were deployed in the most efficient and effective manner possible.

A critical component of INS' enforcement strategy is our comprehensive Southwest border management plan that has the clear goal of establishing and maintaining a "border that works" -- one that facilitates the flow of legal immigration and goods while preventing the illegal entry of people and contraband. To achieve this goal, the plan links enforcement activities taking place in the ports of entry with those occurring between the ports.

By strategically deploying new personnel in one or two areas each year and backing them with equipment and infrastructure improvements, INS has achieved considerable success in restoring integrity and safety to the Southwest border. In the San Diego area, for example, illegal border crossings are at their lowest level in 25 years.

The new Administration has indicated it wants to build on this success. The budget blueprint President Bush sent to Congress in late February calls for a further expansion of the Border Patrol, which has doubled in size over the past eight years.

INS has adapted for the delivery of services the same strategic approach taken to fulfill its enforcement responsibilities. Specific initiatives aimed at improving the way services are delivered to customers were complemented by broader efforts to foster a culture that recognizes the importance of good service and rewards it.

Rebuilding the service structure initially focused on the naturalization process, and with good reason. From 1993 through 2000, nearly 7 million immigrants applied for citizenship, more than in the previous 40 years combined. In the peak year, FY 1997, there were 1.6 million applicants, five times the annual average from 1982 to 1992. With the institutional machinery weak and woefully inadequate to handle this workload, the backlog of pending applications mushroomed.

The first task was to ensure the integrity of the process. With that accomplished, INS launched a two-year initiative in August 1998 to reduce the national average processing time, which stood at 28 months, to six months by the end of FY 2000. INS achieved this goal by processing more than 2.5 million applications over the past two years. And last year the agency extended its service improvement initiatives to two other major benefit programs, the adjustment of status and Green Card renewal.

Although considerable progress has been made, reconstruction of the service structure is far from complete. That, however, hasn't stopped the Bush Administration from setting even loftier service goals than its predecessor. It has proposed a universal six-month standard for processing all applications and petitions for benefits. To meet this standard, the President has pledged his support to a five-year, $500-million initiative to fund new personnel, introduce employee performance incentives, and make customer satisfaction a priority. The first $100-million installment is proposed for FY 2002.

Even with these pieces and a few others from the immigration policy puzzle in place, it's still too early to tell what the final picture will look like. Two things are certain, however.

First, this policy will be carried out by a restructured INS. The new administration, like its predecessor, recognizes that the agency's current structure is one barrier to improved performance that no amount of resources or strategic planning can surmount. It has proposed splitting INS into two agencies with separate chains of command and accountability, reporting to a single policy leader in the Department of Justice. A detailed blueprint for achieving this is still being developed.

The second certainty, which from my perspective as the agency's interim chief is even more important, is that INS can't afford to wait around in an idle fashion until the administration's immigration agenda is finalized. The immediate demands on the agency, in both services and enforcement, are too great to allow us that luxury.

We are currently in the process of implementing the Legal Immigration Family Equity Act which was signed into law last December. We estimate that between now and the end of 2003 the agency will receive nearly 4.5 million applications for the various immigration benefits created by the LIFE Act.

Two weeks ago, we published procedures for applying for adjustment of status under Section 245(i) of the Immigration and Nationality Act, a provision of LIFE that alone is expected to generate half a million applications. With the 245(i) program in place, we are now focused on developing the rules and regulations necessary to implement the other provisions of the LIFE Act, beginning with the new "V" status, which we expect to have in place by May. This is a new nonimmigrant status that allows certain spouses and minor children of lawful permanent residents to live and work in the United States while they obtain lawful permanent resident status. About 150,000 people will be eligible for this benefit.

On March 2, President Bush announced that Salvadorans living in the United States would be granted temporary protected status for the next 18 months. The granting of TPS was part of the administration's efforts to assist El Salvador in recovering from two devastating earthquakes earlier this year. The estimated 150,000 eligible Salvadorans will not be removed and can apply to INS for permission to work during the designated period.

INS is committed to doing everything we can to ensure that this new workload does not prevent us from meeting our other service production goals. And this will be a challenge, because the overall demand for immigration benefits continues to grow. The number of naturalization applications, for example, has grown by nearly 25 percent in the first five months of this fiscal year.

On the enforcement side of the agency, the current workload isn't any lighter. We continue to strengthen and expand our Southwest border management strategy, replicating the success we've had in San Diego, El Paso, and elsewhere.

A critical component of this strategy is the Border Safety Initiative developed in partnership with Mexico. Launched in 1998, this initiative recognizes that protecting the border includes an obligation to protect lives, particularly the lives of those being put in harm's way by smugglers. To meet this obligation, Border Patrol agents have been working tirelessly to educate the public about the dangers of illegal crossings and to rescue those who fail to heed their warnings.

So far this fiscal year, more than 125 migrants have been rescued -- 14 percent more than in all of last year. We are now approaching the summer months, traditionally the "high season" for illegal crossings. As temperatures rise, so will the demand for rescues, and we need to be fully prepared.

Enhanced border management is only part of the seamless web of enforcement that INS has been building. We must continue to strengthen the other strands as well, especially those that extend into our nation's interior. Operation Crossroads is an excellent example of this. Launched in January, this initiative seeks to disrupt smuggling activities in Arizona and ultimately put the migrant smugglers out of business. A key element is cutting off access that smugglers have to facilities and transportation hubs that enable them to conceal and move migrants.

One of the most important goals of Operation Crossroads and INS' overall interior enforcement strategy is reducing the violence and victimization increasingly associated with smuggling activity. And it is a goal the new administration has vowed to help INS meet. At a press briefing last week, Attorney General Ashcroft said he would use his "bully pulpit" to raise awareness of human trafficking. He also pledged to boost government efforts to assist victims.

Detention is another area of enforcement where we must continue to move forward while the administration sets its immigration agenda. Detention and removals are critical components of both the border and interior enforcement. Without an effective program, apprehending deportable aliens becomes a training exercise, lacking credibility and producing few results.

Establishing an effective detention and removal program, however, requires more than simply enhancing our capacity to detain and remove deportable aliens. We must ensure that this capacity is being exercised consistently and humanely nationwide, and INS has a number of ongoing initiatives to do so. I know that Tony Tangemann, who oversees our Detention and Removal Programs, will be discussing these in detail as part of this morning's first session, but there are a couple I'd like to highlight.

Last November, we issued detailed detention standards that provide, among other things, expanded access to legal representation, telephones, and family visits for all detainees, whether they are held at one of the nine INS Service Processing Centers or in a contract facility. Implementation of these standards cannot wait, nor can we delay designing a curriculum that incorporates the standards into a comprehensive training program for field officers.

One of the most vulnerable groups in our custody is families with young children. How to handle them has been a perplexing question, but the agency may have found an answer. Early last month, INS opened a 42-bed family shelter-care facility in Berks County, Pennsylvania. This was an important first step, but we now need to move forward and use this facility as a model for our family shelter-care program nationwide.

As you can see, there is more than enough crucial work to keep us busy in the coming months while the administration's shapes its immigration agenda and develop the programs and policies to implement it. I look forward to working with you to ensure that the seeds of success already planted do not lie fallow but take root.

Thank you.

-INS-

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