INS Curbs Agents' Media Contacts

Agency chief issues gag order from Washington after border officers criticize federal policy. BORDER PATROL AND THE PRESS

ILLEGAL immigration is rising sharply. Drugs are pouring across America's borders. Now Bush administration officials, criticized for not doing more about it, are clamping new rules on border patrolmen and immigration officials who speak to the press. Gene McNary, the newly appointed head of the United States Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), has ordered his officers to seek clearance through Washington before talking with reporters, or with members of Congress.

Prompting McNary's directive: some of the sharpest criticism of Washington policy comes from federal agents who are on the front lines of the drug war.

Officers outside INS headquarters will no longer be allowed to comment on national policy, budget, or staffing.

INS officials express concern about news articles, including a current series in this newspaper on US border problems, in which federal officers in the field have criticized Washington policy.

Bush officials are particularly sensitive to complaints that the White House has permitted the strength of the INS's Border Patrol to decline.

The Monitor first reported the drop in Border Patrol strength on Oct. 11. The Los Angeles Times followed with a story shortly afterward. Then the Washington Post front-paged a story that said illegal immigration threatened to ``overwhelm'' the understaffed patrol due to a hiring freeze.

Much of the news about the patrol's predicament has come from field officers. In an official directive, McNary states:

``All of us have personal opinions and are entitled to express them. However, in speaking as an official of [INS], we are representing not only our agency, but the Department of Justice and the Bush administration. What we do as well as what we say reflects on the commissioner, the attorney general, and even the president.''

McNary's directive was apparently prompted by several factors:

First, the new commissioner had promised Congress that he would ``centralize controls'' at the INS, which is often accused of sloppy management.

Second, he and other Justice officials were urged by Attorney General Dick Thornburgh to make sure their agencies speak with a single voice.

Third, INS officials were upset with several recent news reports in which they felt that some Border Patrol agents in the field spoke either incorrectly, or exaggerated problems.

Verne Jervis, assistant director of public affairs at INS, insists that Washington higher-ups are not trying to muzzle border patrolmen and investigators. Many agents in the field are distressed about high levels of illegal immigration, and about reductions in patrol manpower.

Border Patrol agents across the country were particularly vocal in calling attention to increased lawlessness along the nation's frontiers. Some INS investigators also have criticized policy coming out of Washington.

Mr. Jervis insists that officers can still express their views about conditions in their local sectors. But in the future they will first have to contact Washington to get clearance for news interviews, or permission to speak to members of Congress. Furthermore, statements on overall policy must come out of Washington, rather than from agents in the field.

In the past, ``you could literally call up somebody in an INS office anywhere in the country and get answers to your questions,'' Jervis says.

In his directive, McNary states: ``Congress and persons in the administration have been critical of INS for a number of reasons, including the varied public positions taken on issues as a result of many people talking to the news media without a common understanding of service policy....

``It is necessary for us to speak with uniformity.... To assure that this is the case, I have directed the Office of Congressional and Public Affairs to act as a clearing house for any statements made to the news media, both at the central office and in all field offices.''

Before clearance will be granted, ``the text or an outline of any remarks to be made, including responses to anticipated questions, must be sent to Congressional and Public Affairs.''

The order will apply to 32 INS offices nationwide, as well as 22 Border Patrol offices.

An INS official singled out a quote from a senior Border Patrol agent in a Monitor news story of Nov. 27 as one of those which drew unfavorable attention in Washington.

The story cited Silvestre Reyes, the chief patrol agent in South Texas. Mr. Reyes warned that his men faced serious new dangers because of heavily armed drug traffickers. In the Monitor story, Reyes is quoted:

``The honest truth is that officers armed with six-shot revolvers ... commit virtual suicide when they are forced to stop drug traffickers armed with 30-shot fully automatic weapons, weapons capable of cutting the agent to pieces.''

An INS official calls that ``overly emotional,'' and an ``exaggeration,'' and notes that ``no officer has been shot to pieces.'' Under the new policy, ``Silvestre Reyes won't be making comments like that to you any more,'' the official says.

In addition, officials were concerned about news reports that blame the Bush White House for a 10 percent cut in Border Patrol strength this year. The reduction has come at a time when the president says he is conducting a war against drug traffickers.

Administration officials contend that the hiring freeze at the patrol is the fault of Reagan appointees. Former INS Commissioner Alan Nelson, a Reagan appointee, increased the number of border patrolmen after passage of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. The act called for a 50 percent rise in patrol strength, and Mr. Nelson moved swiftly to add additional patrolmen. Then Congress failed to appropriate the funds to pay for them.

This left President Bush with too many agents, and insufficient money. The result: a hiring freeze, which this year could shrink the patrol to 3,500 officers - about 700 less than when Bush took office.

INS officials insist the reduction is not their doing. It's a problem they inherited. However, the cutbacks are awkward for a president who champions himself as a drug-warrior. In addition, some federal officials said privately that until recently, Bush appointees seemed willing to see the patrol continue shrinking throughout the 1990 fiscal year.

This is apparently why McNary insists that in the future, all questions about ``national policy, budget, staffing, resources, and legislation'' be handled from Washington. ``Clearance will not be granted'' to talk about such subjects in the field, his directive says.

One in a series of articles about US border problems.

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