- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 3, 2002

More than 2 million documents filed by foreigners, from change of address forms to requests for benefits, have been piling up for years and only now are being reviewed by the government, senior U.S. officials said yesterday.
Immigrant advocates say this means some foreigners deported in secret after September 11 might have been in compliance with laws they were expelled for breaking.
The government had not revealed previously the extent to which it had fallen behind in processing such records. Congressional investigators began an inquiry into the question after the terror attacks.
The documents have been collected by the Immigration and Naturalization Service from field offices across the nation and sent to a warehouse complex outside Kansas City, Mo. They include 200,000 change-of-address notices, INS spokesman Bill Strassberger said.
Failure to file a change-of-address form is a deportable offense, and the Justice Department recently said it would step up enforcement.
Mr. Strassberger said the 2 million documents included applications for benefits. Another U.S. official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said more than 300,000 were applications for citizenship.
"The field offices weren't sure what to do with all of the documents they had not been able to look through, and they were a bit overwhelmed by the unprecedented growth [in immigration]," Mr. Strassberger said.
"The reality is, we were a backwater agency 10 years ago. Throughout the 1990s, immigration became a very political issue and has become even more sensitive since September 11. The records represent the way the agency used to be run."
The INS expects to have processed most of the documents by December.
Immigration experts and civil rights groups said the situation is embarrassing to the government and an affront to foreigners who have tried to abide by the rules.
"It exposes one of the INS' dirty secrets," said Lucas Guttentag, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's immigration rights project. "The agency's own record-keeping and information systems are completely inadequate, yet it so often turns around and punishes law-abiding immigrants when the agency's own shoddy record keeping is at fault."
Said immigration attorney William Bernstein: "It's outrageous. It at least raises the possibility that there could be innocent people who were deported on bogus charges."
The INS has been under intense criticism since September 11, when huge gaps in its tracking of foreign visitors and immigrants were revealed. Several embarrassing incidents have added to a chorus of critics in Congress.
Notices of previously approved visa extensions for two of the 19 September 11 hijackers killed during the attacks were mailed months after the attacks, and a government aviation newsletter still was being mailed to another hijacker long after his death. Although all 19 came on valid visas, several were in the country illegally at the time of the attacks.

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