Overload at the INS

The Immigration and Naturalization Service has one of the biggest jobs in the world: managing the flow of would-be citizens (1.8 million are expected this year) to the United States. Unfortunately, the agency sometimes has not been up to the job.

A spectacular failure occurred last year. A number of factors - overtaxed staff and the press of applicants, plus probable political pressures to naturalize likely Democratic voters - joined to short-circuit INS procedures. Specifically, thousands were rushed through the naturalization process without the required FBI background check to identify those with criminal records.

The problems allowing that to happen have been addressed. INS staff no longer assumes that if the FBI hasn't gotten back to them in 60 days the applicant is clean. Staffers now wait until a fingerprint check is made. This means that people have to wait longer - often more than a year - to gain citizenship. But that's preferable to letting nearly a quarter-million slip through to citizenship without proper checks. The Clinton administration has promised to revoke the naturalizations of 5,000 people who had an undiscovered serious criminal record. But that's more easily promised than done. The legal barriers to withdrawing citizenship are substantial.

More important is the work of ensuring it doesn't happen again. To that end, the INS has undertaken a thorough tightening of procedures - prodded along over the months by Justice Department audits and congressional critics. Clerks and adjudicators, responsible for compiling information on immigrants, now have check lists that must be rigorously followed. The agency has developed uniform rules to guide all its offices. And an effort is being made to retrain staff.

But worries remain.

First, there's the major influx of naturalization applicants - spurred largely by the cutoff of federal benefits to legal immigrants who have not become citizens.

Second, the agency faces a large backlog of applicants for political asylum. The task of distinguishing between genuine asylum seekers - forced to flee by persecution - and those whose motives are primarily economic, requires precise training.

Third, the accumulating INS work- load includes people illegally in the country who apply to have their status adjusted. Under a statute passed in 1994 they no longer have to return to their home country to apply for a visa (a task that was handled by the State Department through US embassies) but can go through the process here (which means an extra 400,000 or so cases yearly for the INS).

Fourth, a heightened campaign against illegal immigration further stretches the INS. The agency's pilot program to make a comprehensive immigrant database accessible to employers, so they can check on the legal status of job applicants, embraces 1,000 companies so far. The goal is to extend it nationwide. The INS is also launching more workplace raids, or "worksite enforcement actions," as it prefers to call them.

Congress hasn't balked at giving the immigration service all it has asked for. The INS's budget has doubled in the last four years - the largest increase of any federal agency. But a lot of shoring up remains to be done. The training, hiring, and clarifying of rules has to continue. Fundamentally, the INS needs the management acumen to anticipate increased work and prepare for it.

All the passions and finger-wagging of the immigration-reform debate are beside the point if the agency charged with making things happen doesn't perform. To assure that it does, vigilant oversight is a must - both at the top of the INS and from Congress.

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