MIAMI — A FAIRLY routine fact-finding visit to Miami by a congressional delegation last month was treated as anything but routine. About 50 Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) employees charge they were forced to ''purposefully and actively'' deceive members of Congress about the extent of the immigration problem existing in South Florida.
As a result, the chairman of the Congressional Task Force on Immigration Reform has asked US Attorney General Janet Reno for a formal investigation.
''We [Congress members] came to Miami in search of the truth,'' says Rep. Elton Gallegly (R) of California, whose task force delivered its recommendations for immigration reform to Congress after the Miami visit. ''But after speaking with certain INS employees and reading a signed memo, we are increasingly skeptical that we were able to find it.''
The four-page memo, signed by INS employees, was sent by fax to Mr. Gallegly's office. In it, they allege that staffing levels at Miami International Airport were nearly doubled during the visit, that holding cells were cleared prior to the task force's inspection, and that INS inspectors were ordered to remove their weapons, belts, and handcuffs to present a ''kinder, gentler'' image to congressional visitors.
Perhaps the most serious allegations pertain to the delegation's visit to the Krome Federal Detention Center. The employees accuse the INS of clearing out the facility prior to the delegation's arrival by busing some inmates out of the area for the duration of the visit, and paroling approximately 150 potentially dangerous illegal immigrants into the community.
''I'm sure that these people were just shuffled around and released in an effort to portray Krome as not being overcrowded and understaffed,'' says George Nadeau, an inspector with the Miami office of the INS.
NO one seems to know why the INS would want to mislead congressional policymakers. But Michael Wixted, head of the union local for INS workers in Miami, offers this explanation: ''What they've attempted to do is cover up our inability to do the mission we're charged with doing.''
INS Commissioner Dorothy Meissner and Miami District Director Walter Cadman led tours for seven members of the bipartisan Task Force last month.
''We are deeply disturbed by the allegations made in the July 12 letter,'' says Mr. Cadman in a statement. ''We have every reason to believe that the tour of the congressional task force was completely straightforward and factual. Our objective for the congressional tour was to be as candid as possible about our needs, anything else would have been contrary to the best interests of the INS or of our district.''
Ms. Reno, whose agency includes the INS, promises a prompt investigation.