- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 26, 2002

"We can do a better job of making our borders more secure," President Bush said last week before signing legislation designed to do exactly that. Easier said than done? You bet. For all the spiffy, new immigration guidelines provided by the Enhanced Border Security and Visa Entry Reform Bill intensifying immigration checks at American ports-of-entry; creating an easy-access database of known terrorists; strengthening the student visa program; and hiring 400 new INS inspectors and investigators there remains the same old problem: an undermanned and under-trained immigration agency overwhelmed by the magnitude of its duties.
Take the New York office of the United States Immigration and Naturalization Service. Mr. Bush may have just signed a grandly titled and with a $3.2 billion budget grandly priced bill into law, but the fact remains that today, on the ground, at our flagship port of entry, it's up to just 14 federal immigration agents, assisted by seven New York City police detectives and two state troopers unfamiliar with immigration law, to find and deport the roughly 1,200 illegal immigrants from al Qaeda-active countries now thought to be in the New York vicinity. An even smaller federal squad a mere seven agents is supposed to be making sure that no illegal immigrants from Arab or Muslim nations hold any of the several thousand potentially sensitive jobs at local airports and nuclear plants. Cross your fingers none of these guys catches cold. Meanwhile, no one from the New York office has had time even to begin what the INS calls a national priority tracking down student visa violators from Muslim and Arab nations.
"They just have nowhere near enough people," said James K. Kallstrom, a former assistant director of the FBI and a security adviser to New York Gov. George E. Pataki, told the New York Times, which first reported this story. "They need a geometric increase."
Why the thin, thin, thin blue line? Low morale and equally low pay, say agents and union officials. Topping out at $49,959 a year, rank-and-file special agents make nearly $10,000 less than their counterparts at other federal law-enforcement agencies, an economic fact of life that often leads INS agents to move on to the Drug Enforcement Agency, the Customs Service and other better-paying agencies. Perhaps it's no wonder, then, as the New York Times reported, the law-enforcement arm of the New York INS office is operating at roughly half-strength. Where as many as 150 agents worked there in years past, just 80 federal agents are now responsible not only for the more routine crimes of immigrant smuggling and document fraud, but also for new and urgent terrorism-related duties.
The border-security bill promises to plug some of the holes in our borders, but implementation takes time for example, more than a year, say INS officials, just to get new agents recruited, trained and assigned. And time is antiquated luxury of the past. Something needs to be done now to protect ports like New York.


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