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INS getting its house in order

The U.S. Department of Justice, the federal agency in charge of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, has announced a proposal to make a significant, dramatic restructuring of the INS.The INS ha...

The U.S. Department of Justice, the federal agency in charge of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, has announced a proposal to make a significant, dramatic restructuring of the INS.

The INS has been criticized for years because of its attempt to perform two functions that are sometimes at odds. One is enforcement. To a large extent, this involves the inspections and clearance procedures at international airports and both land and sea Ports of Entry, but it is not confined to the borders. INS enforcement can also involve investigations within the U.S., resulting in detentions and deportations of persons unlawfully present or otherwise in violation of their immigration status.

A quite different function is that of servicing immigration applications from inside and outside of the U.S. The INS receives hundreds of thousands of applications a year for matters such as immigration waivers, temporary work visas, green cards and citizenship.

Some INS offices are already aligned in a way to deal primarily with one function or the other. For example, there are four regional Service Centers, which do nothing more than evaluate and act on immigration applications for visas, green cards and citizenship matters. Other offices, such as inspection facilities at Ports of Entry, deal almost exclusively with the enforcement function. INS field operations operate through a system of district offices throughout the country, which have jurisdiction over both functions. Along the northern border, the major district offices are in Seattle, Wash.; Helena, Mont.; Minneapolis, Minn.; Detroit, Mich.; Buffalo, N.Y.; and Portland, Me.

Each of these offices has jurisdiction over various international Ports of Entry, while at the same time servicing waiver applications, family-based green card applications and citizenship applications, among others. At the same time, each office has a legal staff that serves as the government’s prosecuting or defense counsel in deportation matters and in lawsuits involving the INS.

The offices’ budgeting and resource planning involves staffing and funding decisions that try to keep efficiency levels high in all areas. However, sometimes priorities in one area can mean sacrifices in another. In some offices, applicants for green cards are waiting up to two years or more for no other reason than backlogs due to personnel shortages. On holidays or weekends, cross-border traffic can experience lengthy delays due to understaffing of inspection booths at international bridges and tunnels. The five-year waiver has been promised for several years but has not been implemented because of the failure by the INS to develop a high-tech card that can store important information.

The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, only heightened the focus on INS structure, and compelled the U.S. Attorney General to evaluate whether the system was meeting the needs of the country and persons seeking lawful access to the country. On Nov. 14, Attorney General John Ashcroft, stated, “President Bush is concerned that the INS has been hindered by the current structure of the agency to perform its responsibilities of welcoming new immigrants and protecting our borders by enforcing immigration laws.”

Ashcroft announced a new plan to improve the agency, “By creating a stronger, more efficient INS.”

The restructuring plan separates the responsibilities of serving new immigrants and enforcing the nation’s immigration laws, and establishes accountability by creating clear and separate chains of command. The proposal would create a “Bureau of Immigration Services” (BIS) and “Bureau of Immigration Enforcement” (BIE), each of which would be headed by an executive commissioner responsible for Bureau activities. The current system, involving regional directors for the service centers and district directors for each of the district offices, would be abolished, because they currently have dual responsibilities for services and enforcement. Personnel would obviously be retained, but with different chains of command.

Each bureau would have a special information office to address public concerns. A chief information officer would make sure that both the BIS and BIE respond to public inquiries and concerns relating to the two bureaus.

The restructuring could begin as early as this month, and be complete by Sept. 30, 2003.

The restructuring plan is not assured of taking place as proposed. As an alternative to allowing the Department of Justice to restructure administratively, a Bill is pending in Congress to achieve a similar result through legislation. This proposal would eliminate the INS entirely and replace it with a new Agency for Immigration Affairs.

This would also separate the service and enforcement functions by creating two distinct bureaus… I’ll continue to keep you posted.

– Daniel Joyce can be reached at Hirsh and Joyce, Attorneys at Law, at 716-564-2727.

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