The problems afflicting the Immigration and Naturalization Service are so profound that a high-level commission recommended Tuesday that the INS be completely dismantled, with its responsibilities scattered among four separate agencies.
The bipartisan U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform concluded, for instance, that it makes little sense to have the same agency working to keep people out, through the Border Patrol, and to bring them in, through the citizenship process.
“No one agency can do everything now expected of INS,” said Shirley Hufstedler, the former U.S. education secretary who was chairman of the commission created by Congress in 1990.
INS critics have long contended that any viable solution to the nation’s immigration problems - endless backlogs, a leaky border, rampant mismanagement - requires eliminating the agency and starting over.
The commission’s report gives that idea new momentum. Rep. Harold Rogers, R-Ky., who heads a key subcommittee that oversees the INS, has already ordered Attorney General Janet Reno to come up with a plan that takes into account the commission’s recommendations.
And Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., said Tuesday the idea of ending the INS is worth considering.
“I think you need a clear line in the sand between enforcement and those who help people become citizens,” he said. “It’s almost like they have two different masters.”
About 900,000 newcomers enter the country each year legally, plus an estimated 250,000 illegally. Recent anti-immigrant actions have spurred longtime residents to seek citizenship, and that, among other things, has overwhelmed the INS bureaucracy, even as its budget has more than doubled in four years from $1.5 billion to $3.1 billion.
The White House responded cautiously Tuesday to the notion of dismantling the INS. “This proposal raises difficult and complex issues, which need further consideration,” President Clinton said in a prepared statement.
The INS, with nearly 32,000 employees, is bigger than the State Department or Interior Department.
Under the commission’s proposal, the Justice Department would go after illegal immigrants, just as it pursues criminals with the FBI. The citizenship process would be turned over to the State Department, which now handles visa applications. The Labor Department would take on workplace violations, and a new Agency for Immigration Review would oversee appeals of immigration proceedings.
Some critics of the panel’s proposal argued that under Commissioner Doris Meissner, the INS has begun making progress.
For example, record numbers of criminals and illegal aliens are being shipped out of the country. The Border Patrol has grown roughly from 4,000 agents to 7,000 in four years. And while backlogs remain daunting, the average waiting time for citizenship has shrunk from about three years in 1994 to a little over a year today.
“I’m not saying the INS doesn’t have its fair share of problems, but it is working to fix its problems,” said Marisa Demeo, an attorney with the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund.
Perhaps the most radical, albeit symbolic, suggestion was to rewrite the naturalization oath itself to remove $2 words such as “potentate.”
That recommendation sparked criticism. “We shouldn’t dumb-down the oath of allegiance,” complained Dan Stein, executive director of the Federation for American Immigration Reform. “If the oath of office is too hard for the immigrants to understand … we’re admitting the wrong immigrants.”
But Shirley Hufstedler, a Los Angeles resident and former federal judge who chaired the commission, said rewriting the oath is meant to make it more relevant, not just simpler.
“To talk about potentates when we’re fresh out of them is silly,” Hufstedler said, referring to the fancy word for “sovereign ruler.” “If the language is archaic, then why not bring it up to date?”
The commission’s new oath also would delete a reference to God.