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What's wrong with the INS?

Critics, defenders agree: Agency needs overhauling

What's wrong with the INS?

By Christy Oglesby

(CNN) -- "Conflicted" doesn't begin to explain the problems at the Immigration and Naturalization Service, but it's a start.

The agency is charged with welcoming the huddled masses yearning to breathe free, but is also responsible for weeding out the wretched refuse. With more than 8,000 miles of border, some of it sealed off by nothing more than a narrow river or worn fencing, it isn't always easy to tell the difference. The INS is entrusted with helping keep track of 250 ports of entry, some teeming with commerce and flowing with humanity, their air a babel of different tongues.

This is the agency with an organizational chart that defies a one-sentence explanation, whose divisions don't always work together -- an agency so hampered by itself that the INS' own administrator has condemned its "illogical processes."

Add to that the descriptions immigration experts use to describe the INS -- unmanageable, insubordinate, prone to whim. It's like the mother who finds herself trying to corral a collection of overtired, underfed 2-year-olds: It's nearly impossible.

CNN's Kate Snow reports many U.S. lawmakers want to overhaul the agency that sent out visa-approval letters for two September 11 hijackers (March 20)

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CNN's Susan Candiotti reports on the appearance of INS Commissioner James Ziglar before a U.S. House committee (March 19)

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Bush considers merging INS, Customs 
in Depth: Reforming the INS 

How else to explain the INS' monumental administrative and public-relations gaffe?

The federal agency mailed visa approval notices for Mohamed Atta and Marwan Al-Shehhi, identified as the two pilots who crashed planes into the World Trade Center on September 11. They applied to change their visa status from visitor to student a year before the attack, and both received approval before the deadly terror attacks. A school received notice of the approval six months later in keeping with INS procedure.

That incident has politicians on Capitol Hill thundering, and citizens across the country wondering: What is wrong with the INS? What will it take to fix it?

INS Commissioner James Ziglar faced those very questions Tuesday when he testified at a congressional hearing filled with lawmakers skeptical that the agency could fix itself.

An outside, private company with an INS contract to handle some agency paperwork followed procedures in mailing out the notices, Ziglar said. The INS approved the request to change visa status for the two last summer, he said, adding that such notices are routinely mailed six months later to educational institutions for filing purposes. In the case of Atta and Al-Shehhi, those notices were sent to a flight school the men had attended.

The INS failed to pull paperwork related to the September 11 hijackers from the private company but is in the process of doing that now, Ziglar said.

On its Web site, the INS lays bare its warts and states it needs a restructuring to enhance enforcement, screen individuals, improve data sharing and establish clear accountability. It contains Ziglar's testimony from Tuesday's hearing, in which the commissioner describes a house that needs to get itself in order.

"Reorganization of INS is necessary to provide clearer lines of decision-making and specific accountability," he told lawmakers in an opening statement.

Ziglar's assessment is correct, said Arthur C. Helton, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, a Washington-based nonpartisan organization created to increase America's understanding of world affairs.

"Local and regional offices feel like they can make and enforce their own policies," he said. "It is unmanageable and has unclear lines of authority. It has turfs, and it's hard for the central office to manage."

The lack of accountability festers, Helton said, because the agency's clients are immigrants, powerless and easily intimidated. "The people it serves have no viable recourse," Helton said.

A former INS commissioner agreed. Wayward regional offices "tend to be the case in any large government agency, and that certainly is the case with the INS," said Doris Meisner, who oversaw the INS from 1993 until 2001 during the Clinton administration.

'Inexcusable blunder'

In an interview with CNN, Ziglar said the letters confirming the granting of student visas mailed eight months after the INS approved the applications, six months after the terror attacks, were "an inexcusable blunder."

"We have an agency that has antiquated technology," Ziglar said. "We have an agency that has overly bureaucratic processes."

And while Congress continually increases the INS' budget to make improvements -- Ziglar has requested $6.3 billion for the next fiscal year -- "it is nowhere near the level of personnel and resources it needs to fortify the borders," Helton said. "The INS is not anywhere near the capacity it needs to be to do what it's supposed to do."

Among the INS' duties: conducting immigration inspections at about 250 ports of entry; regulating permanent and temporary immigrants; controlling U.S. borders; and identifying and removing people who enter the United States illegally.

"By and large the management staff is spread far too thin for the work it has to do," said Meisner, who is now a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.

"One day it's 'We have to get these student visas out,' and the next day it's 'We've got to get these people deported,' and the next day it's 'We've got to interview these students from the Middle East to make sure they don't pose a threat.' You can't run an agency that's continually running from crisis to crisis."

Demolish or revise?

How can the agency accomplish its mission? The answer, said Helton, lies in ripping the INS apart or putting it all together.

Talk of splitting the INS' service duties -- such as processing visa applications and its enforcement tasks -- is years old. And earlier this week, the White House said President Bush is considering a proposal to give the INS' border-patrolling duties to the U.S. Customs Service.

"You could easily take some aspects of the INS, like green cards, and put that with Labor (Department) because they are more employment-related. Visas could move completely to the State Department," Helton said.

House Judiciary Chairman James Sensenbrenner, R-Wisconsin, supports dismantling the INS as it exists now.

"It is my intention to schedule hearings and a committee vote on my bill to abolish the INS as we know it next month after Congress returns from the Easter recess," he said last week in an interview with CNN. "One approach is to disable it and put those tasks elsewhere, and the other approach would be to put it all together and make it a Cabinet-level agency."

Helton suggested establishing a "different culture" at the agency.

"(T)he organization isn't as important as shocking it into a different culture, " Helton said. "It really requires one of those corporate makeover experts who understands government personnel issues and can come in with a hatchet and shake things up."

Ziglar sent Congress a restructuring proposal last fall that Meisner said is similar to one she sent to legislators during her tenure at the agency. He proposes putting all INS services under one agency and splitting the organization into two divisions -- enforcement and service. That approach would allow managers and personnel to concentrate on an area in which they have training and expertise, said Meisner.

It also might stumble into the same pitfall that Meisner said stymied her proposal -- politics.

"It will not solve all the problems, but it will go a long way in providing many of the fixes the INS needs," Meisner said of Ziglar's plan.


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