The Nation's Gatekeeper

Keep an eye on the Immigration and Naturalization Service. It rivals the Internal Revenue Service in number of brickbats endured in the last couple of years. Remember the storm of criticism that broke out with charges that the agency had been directed to cut corners to quickly naturalize immigrants likely to vote Democratic in the '96 election?

A recent report by the federal Commission on Immigration Reform surveyed the problems confronting the agency and recommended the INS be dissolved, with various immigration responsibilities farmed out to the State Department, Labor Department, and other agencies. That's a pretty hard spur to action.

And act the agency did. The administration and, not surprisingly, INS commissioner Doris Meissner, said dissolution would be a mistake. Their alternative: thorough reorganization, with a much clearer distinction between the agency's enforcement and service components. Also in the works: extensive computerization of files, so that agents checking on a suspected illegal worker, or interviewing an applicant for citizenship, have relevant information at their fingertips. Four years ago, 35 percent of INS employees had computers at their desks; now it's 90 percent.

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The reorganizing task is daunting: The bureau has nearly 30,000 employees, a budget of almost $4 billion, and a workload that never stops growing. In 1997, 320 million people visited the US, versus 197 million in 1987. Millions want to stay and work legally. Other millions enter and stay illegally. Millions want citizenship.

Those figures are the real reason to keep an eye on the INS. It's America's interface with a world clamoring at its door. If the US is to remain proudly a nation of immigrants, this agency has to do its job well. That means, for one thing, diligent enforcement. Those who break the rules have to be shown the exit. The INS turned back half a million people at the border last year, and removed an additional 1.5 million, many stopped near the border. The number of Border Patrol officers has risen sharply (now well over 7,000, doubled from 1993). Detention facilities are being enlarged. Plans for more effective worksite apprehension of illegals are being devised.

Equally important is the service component. Ms. Meissner emphasizes her agency wants to treat legitimate new arrivals as customers. That will require, above all, a much smaller backlog of unprocessed citizenship applications. Under orders from Congress, the agency is revamping its entire citizenship program. English and civics exams given applicants will be closely controlled. The production of high-quality fingerprint IDs, long a problem, has greatly improved.

But the INS can't fix every problem through reorganization and better procedures. The agency has to work within the framework of US immigration law, and some problems are set in statute. For instance, a 1996 law aimed at restricting illegal immigration cut the appeal process when residency is denied because of a past criminal record. There are cases, though, where past "crime" was insignificant, posing no threat to US society. Yet deportation is the only option now, and lives can be devastated.

The law is similarly inflexible about letting foreigners enter the US to work in highly specialized jobs, like computer programming. When the quota set by law is reached, the door closes - even though US firms could use thousands more such workers and can't find them domestically.

On such matters Congress should do its part for reform and adjust the law. That would serve both both justice and economic progress - two key considerations in any sound policy regarding immigration.

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