- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 11, 2001

Shortly after President Bush said he would issue plans to improve the handling of illegal aliens in September, the two ranking Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee said they would oppose immigration-reform legislation until the administration proposes plans to reform the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

The threat to hold immigration reform hostage by House Judiciary Committee Chairman James F. Sensenbrenner Jr., Wisconsin Republican, and a leading member, Rep. George W. Gekas, Pennsylvania Republican, reveals deep fissures in the Republican Party over immigration and provides an example of contradictions that have plagued the INS throughout its history.

Americans are ambivalent about immigration. Most Americans agree that like any sovereign nation, the United States has the right to let in whom it chooses.

But they also believe the United States is a nation of immigrants, a country where citizenship is conferred on people willing to accept certain values as expressed in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.

As the nation has vacillated since the first federal immigration laws in 1875, so has Congress, producing immigration laws that, as Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies says, "rival the United States Tax Code for complexity."

"The macro problem for INS is that the INS is being asked to carry out crazy policies," said Mr. Krikorian, whose nonpartisan, Washington-based research group advocates "fewer immigrants but a warmer welcome for those admitted."

First of all, current immigration to the United States is large — Mr. Krikorian would say "too large."

The INS processes 600,000 to 700,000 legal immigrants a year, and another 300,000 people or so enter the population illegally. The total immigration for the past decade, by some estimates 10.5 million people, exceeds the highest previous level in the nation's history, 1901 to 1910, when 8.8 million legal immigrants were accepted.

About half of the illegal aliens who enter the country do so surreptitiously, and the INS doesn't know they are in the United States. The other half are aliens who have entered the United States legally but have overstayed their visas or work permits. The INS has no real records of who leaves the country or when.

Myriad permits and visas are used to enter the country: student visas and general work permits, permanent resident applications and tourist visas, political asylum applications and special medical admissions.

Others can enter under a work program, "H2B," a guest worker-type pilot program not unlike the ideas that Mr. Bush is examining. Others come on day-trip passes that allow Mexicans to regularly cross the southern border to a limit of 25 miles, or specialized work permits that let people with exceptional skills work in this country.

Most critics of immigration laws, either from the perspective they are too harsh or too liberal, agree that illegal immigration is fostered by two factors: employment opportunities and the desire to join family members already in the United States.

Mr. Krikorian says that if INS were a more efficient agency, it might be able to handle its mission. But he and former INS Commissioner Doris Meissner believe the agency with a nearly $5 billion budget is ignored.

Though it is a Department of Justice agency, the INS has never had the attention afforded to the FBI, which has fewer employees, or even the U.S. Marshals Service.

But inattention by Congress and several administrations has left it a bureaucratic nightmare.

The INS is just now getting effective computer operations. The quick retrieval of information is vital not only to the smooth process of immigrants, but also to national security.

One congressional aide, who asked not to be quoted by name, said the INS has a backlog of 4.5 million applications of different types from citizenship to permanent-residence renewals.

The administrative breakdown led Mr. Sensenbrenner and Mr. Gekas to issue their ultimatum. Aides to the congressmen said the legislators have received more constituent complaints about the INS than on any other subject.

Miss Meissner is worried Congress will mandate INS organization reform, which has occurred several times in the past 30 years, before broad reforms of the immigration policies. She thinks the INS should help develop the policies, which would determine needed organizational changes.

Numerous bills have been written to both reform immigration and to reform the INS alone.

Some studies in the past decade have called for abolishing the INS and spreading its responsibilities among other agencies. These plans, for instance, would give visa applications and naturalization procedures to the State Department, illegal labor practices to the Labor Department, and create some kind of border police under the Department of Justice. Attorney General John Ashcroft strongly opposes these ideas.

The more politically likely reorganization would be some division of the border and enforcement functions from the naturalization processing within the Justice Department.

It would either create two separate agencies with associate attorneys general or create two separate services with commissioners who report to the attorney general.

Immigrant groups and others sharply oppose a plan that would have two separate agencies funded separately by Congress, fearing that the agency that processes naturalization and provides services to immigrants will not receive as much congressional support as the enforcement agency.

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