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Dear Editor:

Amid the growing discussion of plans to restructure the Immigration and Naturalization Service, both Bills H. R. 3231 and S. 2444, not much has been said yet about one of the more innovative concepts, namely the creation of the Office of an Ombudsman within the Department of Justice to make the new agency accountable for its actions. The term "Ombudsman" originated in Sweden in the 1700s and was formalized in the Swedish constitution of 1809. An Ombudsman deals with complaints received from persons affected by any administrative act or omission of a governmental organization, or investigations started on the Ombudsman's own initiative. There are currently general governmental Ombudsman offices in over 100 countries on all continents, and in North America several states and nearly all Canadian provinces have an Ombudsman, as do many counties, cities, corporations, professional organizations, and about 200 colleges and universities. The numbers of Ombudsman offices continue to grow as governments realize they cannot be judge and jury as well as defenders of their own interests.

Unfortunately, while the new bills and particularly the Kennedy-Brownback Bill in the Senate take the important step of creating this office, at the same time they fall short. They create an Ombudsman with responsibilities, particularly that of reporting to Congress, but fail to provide the Ombudsman with authority. As currently structured the Ombudsman merely receives complaints and requests for assistance, and then reports on how well the agency responded to what the Ombudsman forwards to it. Without authority to investigate, one cannot presume that the Ombudsman either can or will investigate, resolve complaints or be a true stimulus for systematic changes.

What is needed is an Ombudsman with clearly defined authority, in particular: a) The Ombudsman must be required to keep confidential information about complainants who contact the Ombudsman. Without this many complainants will be scared of coming forward, fearing it will prejudice their case. b) The Ombudsman needs to have specific authority to investigate and pursue resolution of complaints, and specific authority to access records.

Without these, I fear that the Ombudsman will end up as a hollow step, not a profound change to add true accountability in the new Immigrations Affairs Agency

Professor Laurence Marks
Northwestern University