Politics at the INS

Congress is examining whether the Clinton administration's overzealousness during the '96 campaign included pressuring the Immigration and Naturalization Service to speed up the citizenship process for potential new Democratic voters.

Lawmakers have zeroed in on the failure of the INS to get required FBI background checks before approving applicants for naturalization. The FBI had 60 days (later 120 days) to let the INS know if an applicant had a criminal record. If the time limit wasn't met, the INS went ahead on the assumption that nothing disqualifying had been found. That lax approach allowed an indeterminate number of felons to make it through last year. Some 180,000 people were naturalized without the needed checks.

The reasons for this problem are at least twofold. The congressmen spearheading the probe point the finger at political pressures to get people naturalized. Indeed, memos from staffers with Vice President Al Gore's reinventing-government initiative indicate such pressure was applied - in response, apparently, to pleas from Hispanic activist groups with their own reasons for wanting to boost the numbers of new-citizen voters.

Another, broader cause of the system failure at the INS is the huge increase, in recent years, in the volume of applicants for naturalization. Between August of 1995 and September of 1996 1.3 million applied, but the numbers had been building toward that figure for three years at least. Last year's deluge of would-be citizens may have been helped around the edges by activists with an eye on Nov. 5. But the biggest stimulants were California's Proposition 187 and the 1986 amnesty for illegal immigrants.

Prop. 187 made it clear to many foreign residents in the US that the political winds were blowing against them, and that they'd better get citizenship fast. The amnesty law opened the door to citizenship for thousands of illegals living in the country. Most took advantage of the amnesty between 1989 and '91, getting green cards and legal status. Five to eight years later, they're flowing through the naturalization system.

"Flowing," however, is not the word. The system has long been clogged. In 1993, soon after her appointment, INS commissioner Doris Meissner launched a "Citizenship USA" program (later included in the reinventing-government initiative) to get things moving and reduce a mounting backlog of applicants. In carrying out that program, the INS may have taken shortcuts. Apart from blinking at the requirement to check for criminal records, the agency has allowed requirements for proficiency in English and for familiarity with American history and government to erode.

In her defense, the commissioner had little choice but to rev up a system facing crisis. The charges of "incompetence" being hurled at her by lawmakers may be undeserved. Which is not to say that those other charges, about political interference with her agency, don't deserve minute scrutiny.

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