Dual Role Dogs US Border Agency

GAO report says Immigration Service programs have `degenerated'

The United States Immigration and Naturalization Service has the dual task of protecting United States borders from illegal intrusion as well as easing the admission of legal immigrants and refugees. But recent findings by a government watchdog agency and a federal appeals court suggest that the INS's double-edged mission is contradictory - that internal competition has led to ``fragmentation,'' and that those charged with keeping people out haven't been fair about letting some in.

INS Commissioner Gene McNary denies that the dual goals are incompatible. ``Our challenge is to provide benefits for those who come into the country legally....

The other side of that coin is that ``we're necessarily required to prevent or do our best to control illegal immigration,'' he says, adding: ``I don't see any conflict in function.''

In contrast, consider the case of a Thai couple in San Antonio. Restaurant owner Sintop Senewongse has lived in the US for 10 years as a permanent resident according to his lawyer, Peter Williamson. In 1987 Mr. Senewongse married Chanida Kirisri, a Thai woman who came to the US as a student and overstayed her visa.

When INS agents stopped by the restaurant to check for illegal aliens, they arrested Ms. Kirisri and began the process of deporting her to Thailand.

Mr. Williamson says he is trying to win citizenship for Senewongse, which would also make his wife a US citizen. Senewongse has, by all accounts, an excellent chance of becoming naturalized, but the INS may deport his wife first.

Mr. McNary, presented with the outline of this example in a Monitor interview, said it ``seems to me there's an easy answer; he should be naturalized.... I don't know why this man didn't come forward a long time ago and become a citizen, and there wouldn't have been any problem at all.''

But now that there is a problem, says Williamson, the two offices of the INS involved in the case will not cooperate to smooth the way to a solution.

The immigration judge in the case has allowed Williamson six months to resolve the matter. But frequently, says the lawyer, an outspoken member of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, ``you can't ... be as candid as I was with this judge.'' He says you have to play one part of the system against the other.

McNary acknowledges that internal INS coordination seems to be called for in this case. But the General Accounting Office (GAO), Congress's investigative arm, last month said in a draft report that the INS ``has degenerated into a group of segmented autonomous programs, each trying to handle its own set of problems with little attention given to their interrelatedness.''

The INS's enforcement operations, such as the US Border Patrol, and the officials who administer services like naturalization and asylum ``have been constantly in competition for resources,'' the GAO said.

McNary, who took office in the fall of 1989, says the GAO report ``reiterated a lot of things that I identified early and corrected, and the things that haven't been corrected, ... we've got the corrections in motion.''

A federal appeals court in California, meanwhile, endorsed a lower court's harsh appraisal of the INS's treatment of Salvadoran refugees. In 1988 federal district judge David Kenyon ruled that the INS ``engages in a pattern and practice of pressuring or intimidating Salvadorans'' not to seek political asylum here, but instead to return to El Salvador.

The three-judge Ninth Circuit appellate panel upheld Kenyon's findings and his order that the INS inform every Salvadoran it apprehends of the right to apply for asylum. The government hasn't decided whether to appeal the case.

McNary says the situation is under control: ``... I haven't even heard, since I've been commissioner, a complaint, ... in that regard, so I have to believe that's been corrected long ago.''

Dale De Haan, director of the immigration and refugee program at the National Council of Churches and former member of a congressional commission that studied international migration, says the problems at INS could be solved by making these issues a higher priority of government.

The Commission for the Study of International Migration and Cooperative Economic Development has urged the creation of a Department of Migration Affairs. As it stands, the INS is a Justice Department agency, and the State Department handles some related functions as well. ``We just felt that migration policy had to be handled at a higher level of responsibility, competence, and visibility,'' Mr. De Haan says.

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