Monday, May 22, 2006

The director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the agency that would administer a new guest-worker program and rule on applications from millions of illegal aliens, says the pending Senate bill doesn’t give his agency enough time to prepare for that giant task.

“Quite frankly, I don’t think that’s really practical. Ninety days to register 12 million people. Do the math,” Emilio T. Gonzalez, who took over as director early this year, told The Washington Times.

In a wide-ranging interview, he said he is on track to make USCIS a true part of the nation’s national security team, defended the agency against accusations of sloppy decisions and mismanagement by a former senior employee, and said that by this time next year the agency will look entirely different.

“There’s a new sheriff in town, and three years [after USCIS was created], I want to know whether we’re staffed properly, I want to know whether we’re paying what we should be paying for contractors, and I want to know if there’s a better way to do it,” he said.

The retired Army colonel took over in January, right as the immigration debate was heating up in Congress. His agency is responsible for ruling on applications for legal permanent residence and citizenship, as well as some temporary visas and asylum petitions.

If Congress passes an immigration bill that includes a temporary-worker program, a path to citizenship for illegal aliens, or both, USCIS will be the agency that has to administer it.

Under the pending Senate bill, and under President Bush’s new vision, illegal aliens would be divided into long-time and short-time residents, with most of the long-time residents being conferred an eventual right of citizenship. But given the prevalence of fraudulent documents, the problem will be determining who is a long-time resident.

From Mr. Gonzalez’s standpoint, the burden of proof will be on the person seeking the new benefit.

“My expectation — and remember, I manage an agency that gives immigration benefits — if I’m offering you a benefit, my expectation is that you have to prove to me that you earned it,” he said.

He acknowledged that fraud could be a huge problem under a plan that divides the illegal population by year, and said “it’s a big ‘depends’” as to whether there are documents that are secure enough to prove beyond a doubt that someone has earned the status.

“What we don’t want to do is create a fraudulent industry,” he said, though he said he is optimistic that they will succeed.

“My expectation is, we fine-tune this thing to where we know what to ask for, and we know what to need, and we’ll take it from there,” he said.

USCIS is part of the Department of Homeland Security and is one of the three agencies that used to make up the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

The other two — U.S. Customs and Border Patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement — are law-enforcement agencies. But Mr. Gonzalez says he is making it clear to his employees that they are part of national security, too — and the last line of defense in preventing terrorists from gaining a permanent legal foothold in the country.

Sitting in his office overlooking Massachusetts Avenue in front of Union Station on Capitol Hill, Mr. Gonzalez last week said he has provided private counsel to lawmakers blocks away in Congress who have asked him for his thoughts about the immigration debate.

But he said his agency definitely will need time to write regulations and handle the flood of applicants, which could top 10 million. He said he would need at least two to three times as much time as the Senate has called for in its bill.

“Bottom line: If I had to, it would be somewhere in the six- to nine-month range, at a minimum,” he said.

In 1986’s amnesty for 3 million people — which just about everyone in today’s debate agrees was the wrong way to go — the final regulations weren’t produced until just days before the law took effect.

He said that this time around, someone will have to set policy on eligibility, what kinds of documents they can accept as proof that someone has roots in the country, and the number and type of appeals that will be allowed.

Otherwise, he said, they risk a repeat of 1986.

“We’re litigating cases today from 1986. And I think the reason we’re doing that — I’m not a lawyer, by the way — is, if you don’t take care of the details, that’s what’s going to bring you down,” he said.

Soon after he took over, Mr. Gonzalez found himself defending the agency against charges from Michael Maxwell, the former head of the Office of Security and Investigations, an internal-affairs division at USCIS.

Mr. Maxwell, who resigned in February, said adjudicators at the agency were ruling on cases without full access to databases. He also said there was a backlog of hundreds of accusations of misconduct, some of them criminal, and that the pressure to rule on cases was overwhelming.

Mr. Gonzalez said he turned the issues over to the department’s inspector general to see what needed fixing, and that he’s satisfied with the inspector general’s progress.

As for Mr. Maxwell, Mr. Gonzalez said: “I’m not saying he was right or wrong. I’m saying he probably had an incomplete picture.”

The director also said two of the charges that Mr. Maxwell, other employees and former employees have leveled aren’t happening.

When asked whether field-level adjudicators are making decisions without seeing all of the background-check information, Mr. Gonzalez was emphatic.

“No. They don’t adjudicate an application if there’s a hit, period. And if I find out, I’ll fire them,” he said.

Mr. Gonzalez said he also has made it clear that benefit parties, bonuses and other rewards for processing applications quickly is done.

“Trust me, it’s ended. I can’t speak for the past, but I can speak for the present,” he said. “We should not be rewarding people for doing their work.”

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