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US agencies and border residents grope for better relationship

By Nadine EpsteinSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / April 15, 1988

Nogales, Ariz.

Like two separate worlds, communities and federal agencies along the United States-Mexico border exist side by side with surprisingly few channels of communication between them. Many inhabitants of the border region perceive agency harassment and discrimination as a widespread problem.

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Most local Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) and Customs Service officials have tried to improve community relations. And the INS is making a conscientious attempt to educate the public about the Immigration and Reform Act of 1986.

But communities have few forums for registering criticism or effecting change on the local level. Americans who live in other parts of the country do not always understand how different the two worlds of the border are.

One is the world of Joe Garza - chief agent for the US Border Patrol in the Laredo, Texas, sector. Mr. Garza, born and bred on the border, says he believes with all his heart that he and his agents are courteous ``do-gooders'' who protect illegal aliens from unscrupulous employers while also safeguarding citizens from criminals who try to enter the US. He fervently believes in the ``three-tiered stool'' of the 1986 Immigration Control and Reform Act: enforcement, employer sanctions, and amnesty.

In the other world is Laredo native Rafael Torres, an activist who daily listens to complaints about ``La Migra,'' the Hispanics' name for the INS. In Mr. Torres's view, the border is an artificial line that cuts families in two and disrupts a natural, historic flow of life. To Torres and others, agents are rude ``outsiders'' with little respect for individual rights.

With the exception of the amnesty provision, Torres finds the new immigration act hard to swallow.

But instead of hurling the usual accusations at each other across a gulf of hatred and misunderstanding, Torres and Garza have used an obscure passage in the new immigration law to create a congressionally mandated community task force that is unique along the border.

In its one 1987 meeting, the task force brought together community activists, high officials of the INS, and a Mexican consul.

``It's a great way of getting local input to create policy changes,'' says Torres, who hopes to arrange a second meeting for the near future. ``The task force ... is a way for people to make their feelings and concerns known to the [INS] district director. And it makes the agency understand the community better.''

Agent Garza agrees. But he sees the task force mainly as a way to inform the community about the new legalization process, not as a long-term entity.

And although local critics of the border agencies see task forces and meetings as crucial in easing tensions, they also say these activities are unlikely to affect fundamental policy changes on the national level.

One needed reform, says Hal Gross, a Washington, D.C., lawyer, is clarification of internal agency policies so that agents have less discretionary power.

In 1985 Mr. Gross, while on the staff of Sen. Alan Cranston (D) of California, conducted a study of civil rights allegations against the INS. He found little ground for brutality claims, but says that agents have too much discretion and there is not enough oversight of their activities.

``Discretion is not bad if there is some way to uncover abuses,'' Mr. Gross says. ``But what we discovered is that the INS is a self-protecting agency which did not have the personnel to carry through investigations at all levels.''

According to INS assistant director of public affairs Verne Jervis, the INS is making a concerted effort to increase the number of investigators in its Office of Professional Review (OPR) and inform the public that such an office exists. Between March 1986 and March 1987, 448 complaints were reported to the INS - 47 of them were civil rights complaints. Of the civil rights complaints, five were substantiated and 10 are still being investigated, he said.