- The Washington Times - Friday, June 7, 2002

Where were you last weekend between the hours of 1 p.m. Saturday and 6 p.m. Sunday? That's when police in Tacoma, Washington, believe somebody broke into the local inspection office of the Immigration and Naturalization Services and made off with a choice collection of INS ink stamps, all of which, with a well-aimed thud, can officially and talismanically grant access to the United States.

Vanished are: a 90-day-admission stamp that validates foreign passports; a "parolee" stamp for refugees; two different stamps that allow foreign sailors ashore to shop; and an "I-551" stamp that marks the visas of those awaiting permanent-residency cards. Also pinched in the weekend burglary were a slew of INS forms, an INS badge, a .40-caliber Beretta handgun, two clips of ammunition and a laptop computer.

A nerve-wracking haul, in these times, to say the least unless, of course, you happen to work for the INS. With a determinedly chipper clairvoyance, these real-life Keystone Kops sans laughs have decided the burglary has absolutely no connection to terrorism. "We're concerned that someone broke in," INS spokesman Garrison Courtney told the Seattle Times. "But we're not overly concerned they took the stamps or the badge. That's OK to us. I know the public is concerned that they could be used to make fraudulent stamps, but we're prepared for that."

That's OK and we're prepared? Pardon me for withholding audible sighs of relief, but this is the INS butt of Islamist terrorists and late-night comics everywhere not the Boy Scouts. Frankly, the agency should be a little "overly concerned." But no. "We've got them flagged," Mr. Courtney continued, just brimming with comic-book bravado as he argued the worthlessness of the booty. "We'll know right away that they're stolen."

Each stamp, it seems, has its own number, and, in the event of loss or theft, INS agents are notified a number has become invalid. So now, in addition to keeping an eye on the big picture you know, identifying terrorists passing into the country already over-stretched immigration agents have to check the fine print, literally, on their papers.

But even if the INS isn't fooled, others easily could be. "These stamps, when placed on a passport, any passport, or any other INS documents, are get-home-free cards when stopped by local police," Ben Ferro, a retired INS district director with a tighter grip on reality, explained to Tacoma's News Tribune. "These are stamps that authenticate someone's documents. In light of September 11, the agency should be turning things upside down looking for these stamps." But it doesn't seem to want to break a sweat. "If they're going to send in this stuff, we're going to catch it," Mr. Courtney told the newspaper. "We're everywhere."

Tell that to the New York City cops who, as the New York Post reported last week, had to free an overloaded vanful of Middle Eastern men holding "a variety of paperwork" (including a fake government card from Times Square and a phony passport) because the INS didn't seem to have a soul on duty over Memorial Day weekend. The agency contact number rang an INS office in Vermont, more than 300 miles away. As one angry policeman put it, "What's the point of stopping vans and risking your life when the one agency with power blows you off? And this is after September 11." And what did the INS have to say in response? "Since September 11, our primary focus has been on terrorist-related investigations, and, contrary to belief, we are not in the business of detaining people without cause. These men posed no terrorist threat or, for that matter, any threat to the community."

Sweeping, aren't they? Snippy, too. You might wonder how the INS knew there was no terrorist threat if its agents never showed up. Probably the same way it figured the theft of the visa stamps was no big deal. (And what ever happened to policing good, old-fashioned immigration violations, anyway?) Such high-handed bumbling may be outrageous, but it is also commonplace. Agency overhaul, anyone? Thank goodness the Justice Department has decided to pitch in, having called on anti-terrorism teams of federal, state and local officers formed since September 11 to assist the INS in registering and fingerprinting Muslim and Middle Eastern visa holders. Professional Arabists and civil libertarians are squawking, but as Rep. Mark Foley, Florida Republican has noted, "Al Qaeda is not an equal-opportunity employer."

By reactivating a law unofficially abandoned due to sheer visa volume and INS budget cuts in the 1980s, and applying it to visitors from countries that "pose the highest risk to our security," the government is finally taking a serious step to head off the terror networks that threaten us. In so doing, it will help the INS help itself and the nation it serves.

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