Reforming US Gatekeepers

For too long, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) has been the unwanted relative in the Justice Department. The agency, which grants citizenship, processes immigration requests for American citizens' relatives, and controls the flow of visitors, refugees, and immigrants (legal and illegal), gets little attention and paltry oversight.

Immigration is an inherently messy business. Since most of what INS does affects people who aren't voters, it has little constituency to demand good management or lobby for adequate funding. Most politicians and attorneys general prefer to keep their distance. Yet it's vital for this nation's interaction with the world.

The results of neglect are predictable: A recent study of management problems at Justice by Congress's General Accounting Office focused mostly on INS with its 31,000 employees. To those who must deal with it, the agency too often behaves like the Keystone Cops.

For example, INS officials recently arrested and then released a suspected serial killer on the FBI's most-wanted list. (He later turned himself in.) It's had trouble identifying deportable felons when they are released from prison. The wait for citizenship papers or immigration petitions can be interminable. And just try getting an INS employee on the telephone.

INS Commissioner Doris Meissner proposes splitting up the agency's now-unified law-enforcement and service functions. A bill in the Senate would do that, while a House bill would create two agencies - one to police the border and enforce immigration law, the other to provide immigration and citizenship services.

Both approaches seek to solve the problem of an agency with conflicting missions that too often reacts to crisis by shifting money and personnel to one, shortchanging the other. But the management challenges at INS are so deep-rooted that we think the House bill is required.

Reform should beef up INS's ability to stop illegal immigration and provide better service to clients. But it should go a step further: INS's judicial and police functions should be separated. The same agency should not be both judge and prosecutor.

In any event, until Justice and the White House demand the same professionalism from INS that they do from the FBI, the reforms will be inadequate. Congress must provide the new agencies needed oversight and adequate funding to get the job done.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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