US Immigration Service Plans Ambitious Agenda

Commissioner Doris Meissner, pledging more manpower and technology, is asking Congress for a 22 percent budget increase

FEDERAL officials, under sharp criticism, are vowing to do better next year in their efforts to stem the flow of illegal immigrants to the United States.

First, however, they need more money.

Doris Meissner, commissioner of the US Immigration and Naturalization Service, is asking Congress for $2.1 billion for the coming fiscal year. The new immigration budget, up 22 percent, would put the INS on a financial par with the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

America's population of illegal migrants grows by approximately 1,000 a day, and big receiving states like Florida, California, and Texas are demanding that President Clinton and Congress take action.

Ms. Meissner pledges that, with a combination of more money, manpower, and technology, the flow of undocumented immigrants will come under better control in 1995.

``We intend to have 1,010 more Border Patrol agents on the line by the end of 1995,'' she told a Senate appropriations subcommittee this week. The added front-line manpower will consist of 500 new agents, plus 510 current officers, such as drivers and radio technicians, who are being reassigned to enforcement.

Sen. Ernest Hollings (D) of South Carolina, chairman of the Senate appropriations subcommittee on commerce, justice, state, and judiciary, listened to Meissner's plans with what appeared to be some skepticism.

Mr. Hollings pointed to a recent incident in Florida, where the president permitted a boatload of more than 400 Haitians to land at Miami. If past procedures are followed, most of the Haitians will be permitted to settle in Florida, and many will go on welfare.

Why aren't these people detained by federal officials if they can legally be excluded? Hollings demanded. On Tuesday morning, the senator says he called a federal judge in South Florida, who said from 60 percent to 80 percent of the undocumented aliens released into the community never show up for their immigration hearings.

The result is a growing burden on Florida taxpayers. Gov. Lawton Chiles (D) of Florida estimates that the state now spends $884 million a year to provide health care, education, prisons, and other government services for the illegal population, which numbers several hundred thousand persons.

Meissner promised a five-part effort to bring improvement: strength border control, expedite removal of criminal aliens and asylum reform, reduce job opportunities for illegals, and encourage naturalization of legal immigrants.

After conceding to Hollings that INS made ``several serious missteps'' during the past year, Meissner asked that INS be allowed to make a fresh start.

She said one of the most urgent needs is modernizing the INS. Officers are often required to work with outdated equipment - typewriters instead of computers, for example. Improved technology can boost efficiency by ``up to 40 percent,'' she said.

Some enhancements Meissner wants along the border with Mexico are better fences and lights, encrypted radios to foil smugglers, infrared equipment for night operations, and more automation.

Technology can also help with the INS's clogged asylum system, she said. Hundreds of thousands of people enter American ports and claim political asylum. Many claims are bogus, but the INS hasn't the manpower to investigate them. So the individuals are released.

The 1995 budget provides $38.3 million for 184 new asylum officers - more than doubling the corps. The INS will also hire 50 more judges to hear immigration cases.

To improve productivity of immigration judges and US attorneys, the INS will use video teleconferencing to conduct immigration hearings electronically. The judge can remain in his courtroom, the immigrant can remain in a detention center. Meissner says video will save judges hours of travel time.

Hollings also criticized the INS fingerprint program, which is so uncontrolled that an alien can submit someone else's prints when an immigrant's criminal record is checked, Hollings said.

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