- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 19, 2008


It seems immigration, legal and illegal, is too numerically overwhelming for the federal government to handle properly.

I recently praised the Labor Department and Labor Secretary Elaine L. Chao for the decision to change the wage and visa application rules governing farm laborers in an attempt to reduce the demand for illegal immigrants. This was a positive step after the debacle last year of the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2007, in which Americans were told illegal immigrants live among us in the shadows and that the federal government has no way of knowing who they are. The Labor Department’s proposed changes acknowledge that most of the agricultural workers in this country are illegal immigrants.

But how are Americans supposed to trust the federal government to enforce the border and deport those who arrive illegally when it is incapable of checking those who are here legally? This is an egregious problem, highlighted earlier this month when President George W. Bush”s administration announced it will grant permanent residency status to tens of thousands of legal immigrants without first completing their required background checks against the FBI investigative files because the backlog of legal immigration cases is too large and growing rapidly.

The change in status will affect an unknown number of applicants whose cases otherwise are complete but whose FBI checks have been pending more than six months. The backlog has left many legal immigrants in limbo. I applaud these immigrants for following the rules and applying to live here legally. They are not the problem; the federal government is.

Part of the problem is that the system of background checks is inefficient. The FBI stores more than 86 million investigative files which electronically complete the background checks for about 90 percent of legal immigrants within three months. The remaining 10 percent can take years to finish through paper-based searches for any mention of an applicant”s name in records stored in 265 locations across the country.

What type of signal does this send to those who may be criminals in their home country or who seek to destroy America for ideological reasons? The signal is loud and clear: Those with criminal records, including violent ones, or who would mount terrorist attacks against us can beat the system because the federal government is too uncoordinated and lethargic to check their backgrounds. This is a serious threat to our national security, not because all these legal immigrants have criminal intentions but because it only requires a few to slip through to wreak havoc on our cities and country.

The decision to grant permanent residency status to tens of thousands of legal immigrants without first completing their required background checks is a disservice to American citizens, as much as the lengthy wait period is for legal immigrants, many of whom may have jobs and families in limbo hinging on the outcome of their residency status. The federal government is failing both groups.

Congress has approved more money to speed the FBI name checks. Unfortunately, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the agency handling the background checks for permanent residency status, plans to use the increased funding to hire more FBI contractors. As has come to be expected from the federal government, this is an outdated way to handle the matter. What USCIS should do is mount an intensive campaign with the FBI to make all FBI files electronic, so it will no longer require so much time and manpower to dig through paper files across the country. But such a common-sense idea rarely occurs to bureaucrats.

The federal government needs to get a handle on immigration, both legal and illegal, and to do so soon. It has failed the American people on this issue more than any other and will continue to fail unless we demand an immediate overhaul of the current system. And that does not mean more bureaucracy.

Paul M. Weyrich is chairman and chief executive officer of the Free Congress Foundation.

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