- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 20, 2002

A few weeks after September 11, I asked Immigration and Naturalization Service Commissioner James Ziglar a simple question: Had the INS checked the immigration status and criminal backgrounds of security screeners working on September 11 at Dulles, Newark and Logan International Airports the three airports from which al Qaeda terrorists commandeered U.S. airliners and crashed them into the World Trade Center and Pentagon?

Eight months later, after numerous follow-up letters, phone calls and face-to-face queries, I finally received an answer: They hadn't, and had no plans to.

Commissioner Ziglar's reasoning was simple, if not simplistic: The FBI was in charge of investigating the September 11 atrocity and INS only did as directed. It is yet another example of the INS' inability to take the initiative to protect Americans from terrorists and violent criminals.

The INS did take some positive steps in the wake of my persistent questioning, however. In November, the agency launched Operation Tarmac at Newark International Airport and expanded it to airports across the country. More than 100 illegal and criminal aliens with access to secure areas at our nation's airports have been arrested. Unfortunately, and disappointingly, Operation Tarmac is one of the few bright notes for the agency post-September 11.

Reports abound about the continuing INS culture of ignoring criminal aliens, some of whom may have terrorist intentions. Last week, I wrote Commissioner Ziglar seeking explanations for three recent incidents. One, New York police officers stopped a van containing several Middle Eastern men over the Memorial Day weekend. All the suspects admitted to being in the country illegally. They possessed forged passports and government ID cards. An INS spokesperson reportedly said the agency is "not in the business of detaining people without cause." Let's see, a group of men, most of whom were from Pakistan and are illegally in the country and driving around New York City with forged documents what cause do they need?

The second item is a continuation of the agency's technological incompetence. For nearly two months this spring, the INS' computerized watch list system inexplicably lacked 3,500 names of suspected criminals and terrorists. At least one of those on the list someone with suspected terrorist ties entered the country during the lapse.

Thirdly, two bail bondsmen have complained that they twice have delivered to the INS an illegal immigrant who was wanted for deportation, but they have been turned away both times. The bondsmen delivered the immigrant, whose bond they had posted, because the INS had ordered them to.

The problem isn't a lack of resources Congress has increased the INS budget by more than 300 percent from $1.4 billion in 1992 to its current level of more than $5.5 billion. The problem is a lack of commitment, a lack of accountability, and a culture that encourages incompetence and discourages ingenuity.

In April the House of Representatives approved a bill to dismantle the INS, separate its enforcement and service functions, and create a new agency with clear lines of accountability under the attorney general. The bill passed on an overwhelmingly bipartisan 405-9 vote, reflecting widespread knowledge that the INS is the worst-run agency in the nation.

Last Thursday, President Bush proposed placing the INS under the proposed Department of Homeland Security, with a minimum of tweaking.

A bill to create the Department of Homeland Security has not yet been introduced. Once it is, as a senior member of the House Judiciary Committee, I and many of my colleagues will be taking a close look at how the INS fits in the mix. Just moving it under a new Cabinet secretary is insufficient.

It's important to note that FBI Director Robert Mueller has admitted mistakes made by his agency leading up to September 11. We have heard no such admissions from INS brass. That arrogance permeates the upper ranks of the organization. Until there is accountability, our borders never will be secure.


Elton Gallegly is a Republican member of the U.S. House of Representatives from California.

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