National Immigration Forum
As of March 1, 2003, we won't have the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) to kick around anymore. That is the day that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) officially takes over the range of immigration issues that INS managed - or mismanaged - since the 1930s. Widely recognized as one of the least competent, least successful, and least efficient agencies in Washington, the demise of the INS presents a golden opportunity to improve the way the United States manages immigration and border security.
However, whether this golden opportunity is realized or not remains in serious doubt.
"We aren't shedding tears for the old INS, nor are we jumping for joy at what replaces it," said Angela Kelley, Deputy Director of the National Immigration Forum, a leading immigration advocacy organization in Washington. "The President got the agency that he wanted, now we have to see how well it works."
As the transition and reorganization of the nation's immigration agency begins, Kelley's organization says the most important concerns relate to the Department of Homeland Security's structure, the impact on services, and security and the oversight role of Congress.
PITFALLS IN THE AGENCY'S STRUCTURE
For years, the National Immigration Forum and other immigration advocacy organizations have supported fundamental restructuring of the INS to create separate but coordinated units to perform the two different but related missions of the agency: enforcing immigration law and providing immigration-related services to immigrants and visitors.
Without coordination and a powerful executive managing both sides of the equation, each function could be undermined.
These principles were embraced by the Bush Administration when its original INS reorganization plan was introduced in November 2002, but fell to the wayside in the rush to pass legislation last fall.
In the new DHS, all immigration enforcement is placed in various divisions within the massive Bureau of Transportation and Border Security, along with the Customs Service, Coast Guard, Transportation Security Agency and other agencies.The new DHS will also have a Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services to manage service functions such as citizenship applications, asylum claims, and family and employment immigration petitions submitted by employers, legal immigrants, and citizens.
Each new Bureau follows a different chain of command up the line and has different decision-makers, policy planners, and legal counsel.
This structure makes it less likely that enforcement of our immigration laws and services to newcomers, citizens, and American businesses will be closely coordinated or act in a coherent and consistent manner.
"Visa and citizenship officers whose policies, practices, and regulations are divorced from enforcement leave us vulnerable," Kelley said.
"Similarly, enforcement officers alone inspecting arriving refugees, visitors, students and business travelers send foreign visitors the wrong message."
SERVICES: THINGS WILL GET WORSE BEFORE THEY GET BETTER
One of the campaign promises of the President, often repeated since, has been to reduce waiting times for immigration services to just six months.
In fact, in recent moths, backlogs are ballooning as INS personnel scramble to enforce endless edicts by the Department of Justice.
"Immigration, tourism, and the work of foreign travelers and students is a tremendously important asset for our economic well-being," Kelley continued. "It seems to have been an afterthought in how the President and Congress structured the new agency that is in charge of making the process work." "The backlog at INS to get your wife or child into the country legally is beyond belief already," Kelley said. "Add to this a major restructuring, the disruption of establishing new procedures and chains of authority, and the incredible lack of money and manpower in the system, and we are likely to see a further erosion of the immigration services side of our immigration system."
CONGRESSIONAL OVERSIGHT AND COURSE CORRECTIONS Like any restructuring of this magnitude, the President and Congress are likely to rethink aspects of the reshuffling that, on greater reflection, do not seem to work Congress will need to take an active role in ensuring that the new agency has the framework and resources necessary to accomplish its mission. Perhaps more importantly, Congress must examine the hodge-podge of immigration laws the agency is charged with enforcing and take on the difficult task of making our immigration system coherent, enforceable and secure at the same time as we remain a country open to newcomers and their talents.
"Creating a system of immigration laws that addresses the needs of the country and balances security concerns with our historic and deeply-held tradition as a nation of immigrants is a prerequisite for the success of the Department of Homeland Security," Kelley said. "All eyes are on the President and Secretary Ridge," Kelley concluded. "How the agency comes together and how immigrants are treated in the process will help define this presidency with regards to immigration."
"Regardless of these restructuring issues," Kelley said, "the overarching problem remains that U.S. immigration laws are out of line with the needs of the economy and the realities of why and how people move across borders. It doesn't matter how smart or well-organized the agency is if the laws are dumb and disorganized."