A House Divided
n the past five years, the Immigration and Naturalization Service has received what most federal agencies can only dream of: a doubling of its budget and a huge influx personnel. But money and more staff, it turns out, haven't solved the agency's problem--a split personality.
The INS is legally bound to keep illegal immigrants out of the United States and at the same time help legal immigrants become citizens and receive other benefits. It is widely viewed as failing at both assignments. Despite its recent growth, the agency faces an unprecedented level of illegal immigration and a record backlog of citizenship applications. In Congress and elsewhere, agency-watchers are beginning to suggest that an agency so at war with itself cannot stand.
Last year a bipartisan commission recommended dismantling INS altogether. The U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform concluded that no single agency could effectively be both service provider and law enforcer. The commission instead suggested INS' responsibilities be divided among existing agencies and that a new Bureau for Immigration Enforcement be created at the Justice Department, INS' parent agency, to handle illegal immigration at the border and in the interior of the United States.
"Immigration law enforcement requires staffing, training, resources and a work culture that differs from what is required for effective adjudication of benefits or labor standards regulation of U.S. businesses," the commission's executive director, Susan Martin, told the House Subcommittee on Immigration and Claims in May. Because INS enforcement and service operations compete for resources and attention within the agency, both are poorly managed, the commission concluded.
The commission's findings were a blow to the Clinton administration and INS leaders. In a bid to save the beleaguered agency, Attorney General Janet Reno and INS Commissioner Doris Meissner enlisted consulting giant Booz-Allen & Hamilton for recommendations on improving INS operations. Last spring, Meissner unveiled a plan to radically restructure the agency by splitting the enforcement and service functions into separate organizations with independent chains of command, each reporting to INS headquarters.
Dividing INS' responsibilities among other agencies, as the commission recommended, would merely divide the problems, not solve them, Meissner says. Congress has not yet approved the administration's proposal, and some members are openly skeptical about it. Nevertheless, the agency has begun to implement the plan, says Mary Ann Wyrsch, INS deputy commissioner.
"We wouldn't be wise to just sit and wait," Wyrsch says. In September, INS awarded a six-month $900,000 contract to Pricewater- house-Coopers to develop a blueprint for restructuring the agency.
Based on the agency's long-troubled history, however, many people, both inside and outside INS, wonder if the agency is capable of reforming itself.
Nowhere is the tension between the enforcement and service sides of INS more apparent than in the agency's 33 district offices. Responsible for serving immigrants seeking benefits, such as work privileges or citizenship, and with finding and deporting those who have entered the United States illegally, the district offices are a microcosm of the challenges confronted by the entire agency.
Those challenges are immense. INS faces a backlog of nearly 2 million applications for citizenship. And applications for other benefits, such as work permits, grew 60 percent between 1992 and 1997, from 4.1 million to 6.5 million. In addition, federal officials estimate there are more than 5 million illegal immigrants now living and working in the United States.
Most would-be illegal aliens don't get past the Border Patrol, the uniformed arm of the INS that is responsible for preventing illegal entry at U.S. land borders. The Border Patrol, which operates independently of the district offices, apprehends well over a million illegal immigrants every year. Still, about 250,000 immigrants overstay their visas each year or illegally make their way to the interior of the United States, where they become the responsibility of the district directors.
Dealing with illegal immigrants living in the United States is "just not a priority" for the district offices, says Ron Sanders, the INS' chief patrol officer in Tucson, Ariz., and head of the Chief Patrol Agents Association. "That's why we have such a large number of illegal aliens in the interior." Sanders, himself a former district director and a 28-year veteran of INS with both enforcement and service experience, argues that the Border Patrol should have jurisdiction over illegal aliens wherever they are in the United States, not just at the borders.
The relationship between the Border Patrol and the district offices is generally good, Sanders says. "The problem is, the districts don't have enough resources to do everything," and providing services to immigrants, like processing naturalization applications, takes precedence, he says.
Ironically, the backlog of citizenship applications stems from a Reagan administration program intended to reduce the number of illegal immigrants. By granting legal residency to about 3 million illegal immigrants who could prove they had lived and worked in the United States for several years, the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act guaranteed the deluge of naturalization applications the INS began to see in the middle of this decade, as those granted amnesty under the 1986 law became eligible to apply for citizenship. In 1990, for instance, INS received 233,843 applications for citizenship. By 1995, the number had risen to more than 1 million.
To cope with the huge number of new applications, INS managers sought to streamline the lengthy naturalization process with a new program known as Citizenship USA. But a few months into the program, in early 1996, immigration advocates began to publicly complain that the naturalization process still was taking too long and would likely prevent hundreds of thousands of new citizens from voting in the 1996 election.
The White House took notice. In February, nine months before the election, Vice President Al Gore and his reinventing government team from the National Performance Review gladly lent the overwhelmed INS a hand. By stepping up the application process, contracting out some responsibilities and eliminating internal regulations, INS was able to naturalize more than 1 million new Americans, twice as many as the previous year. (See "The Politics of Citizenship" January 1997)
What initially seemed cause for celebration, however, turned into a management nightmare when evidence began to emerge that INS had improperly naturalized thousands of immigrants, including felons. Prompted by Republican charges that INS had violated its own standards to register potential new Democratic voters in time for the election, the Justice Department initiated an independent review of the Citizenship USA program.
The result, as summed up by Attorney General Reno, was a "catastrophe." Auditors from KPMG Peat Marwick early this year estimated that of the 1.1 million immigrants who were naturalized in the 13 months preceding the election, 11,600 had arrest records that should have disqualified them from becoming citizens; 38,000 had broken the rules during the application process; and processing errors were made on more than 90 percent of the applications, with each application averaging two errors.
Besides further demoralizing the already troubled agency and fueling the anger of Republican critics, the extensive audit nearly brought the naturalization process to a standstill, causing the application backlog to mushroom to 2 million. To avoid similar problems in the future, INS introduced new procedures and oversight of the naturalization process, and has made reducing the backlog a top priority--one that falls squarely in the lap of the district directors.
The temptation for district officials is to address the problem by shifting staff and resources from enforcement to naturalization.
"If you're a district director, and the naturalization backlog is a burning priority with the media, with the commissioner and with the attorney general, it's natural for you to look at your existing resources, which includes investigators, and pull those investigators from investigative duties and put them into naturalization duties. I have done that myself," says Sanders, the Kansas City district director from 1982 to 1995. "It's natural that you're going to put out the fire that's hottest at the time."
Investigators are also sometimes called upon to process employment documents. By law, INS must begin adjudicating employment authorization applications within 60 days or risk court action, which only compounds the already overwhelming workload in district offices.
The problem with such an approach to managing the workload, however, is that enforcement work suffers, Sanders says.
So does service work, says Margaret McCormick, president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, who believes the agency has an "enforcement culture" that precludes effective customer service. "The agency makes a serious effort to meet what can only be called a schizophrenic mission," McCormick told members of the Senate Judiciary Committee's immigration panel in June. "Naturalization is only the most recent and extreme example of the difficulty the agency is experiencing under its current structure and resource allocation to adequately process the mounting stacks of applications. In this regard, the agency is in crisis mode at all times. When it responds to pressure to reduce backlogs in one area of its adjudications, the most recent being naturalization, it must do so at the expense of its other adjudications responsibilities."
Using law enforcement personnel to ease the pressure on service operations is not always a bad thing, says Baltimore district director Benedict Ferro. A number of enforcement issues are uncovered by the service side of the house, such as marriage fraud and other schemes to beat the system, he says. "Enforcement and benefits operations are interrelated and somebody has to be able to shift the resources accordingly."
One career INS special agent who requested anonymity disagrees, saying that enforcement personnel cannot maintain their professionalism or develop much-needed expertise when they are continually being diverted to cover shortages in service operations. He cites a case where a GS-15 grade senior investigator was required to work for several weeks at a public information desk, a GS-7 position. He says he himself once was pulled off an undercover investigation to serve as an usher at a naturalization ceremony.
"Pulling undercover agents off an assignment and then--I don't want to say blowing their cover, but at least endangering their cover--and then asking them to go back out undercover is just not something you'll find any law enforcement manager doing," says Richard Gallo, president of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association.
The association believes INS enforcement and service responsibilities need to be handled by separate agencies within the Justice Department. Even abolishing the current field structure, as the administration's restructuring plan proposes, won't solve the problem, he says, but will only push decisions further up the chain of command. "The only other agency to be similarly structured is the Internal Revenue Service, and they haven't exactly been the poster child for efficiency and effectiveness," Gallo says.
The problem is twofold, says the special agent. "On any given day, you have a crisis, so [senior managers] shift the minions from one major crack in the dam to the next. But there is also a general lack of respect for or recognition of the expertise and specialization that INS law enforcement entails. And quite frankly, immigration advocates don't want people like me who are charged with locking illegal aliens up to adjudicate cases for benefits. That's a major conflict of interest. But it's very routine at INS," the agent said.
The enforcement side of INS is hindered by the lack of law-enforcement expertise at senior levels, say Sanders and other enforcement personnel. "The chief of the Border Patrol [the highest-ranking enforcement officer in INS] is four levels below the commissioner. That's not putting much emphasis on the largest segment of employees in the service," Sanders says.
The bottom line, says Sanders, is that investigations of labor violations and other enforcement priorities simply fall through the cracks when enforcement personnel are required to do service operations. "As everything gets put on the back burner, everything collapses and the intent of Congress just cannot be carried out."
INS' problems are not for lack of money. From 1993 to 1998, the agency's budget more than doubled, to $3.8 billion. The new funding has paid for a 45 percent increase in personnel and new technology programs designed to improve efficiency.
Both the enforcement and services sides "get more than adequate resources," says Ferro. Instead, he thinks problems stem from a large headquarters staff prone to micromanagement due to political pressure and a lack of accountability among senior managers. For example, he says, the Citizenship USA program was orchestrated by headquarters managers who felt pressured to increase the number of naturalizations, regardless of the district directors' concerns about maintaining integrity in the process.
The impact of INS' budget increases has been felt most strongly along the Mexican border. On average, the agency has hired 1,000 new Border Patrol agents every year since 1994 to help deal with the flow of illegal immigrants from Mexico.
The influx of personnel and equipment has been a boon to areas like San Diego, where apprehensions of border crossers are at a 17-year low due to the deterrent factor of a dramatically larger Border Patrol force. Nonetheless, the illegal traffic has shifted to other regions along the 2,000-mile border, making it difficult to measure progress in the efforts to turn back the tide of immigrants.
It's a situation that increasingly angers lawmakers, including Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, a member of the Judiciary Committee's immigration subcommittee. "Saying I am frustrated would be an understatement," Grassley told Meissner at a Senate hearing in July. He cited the agency's lack of responsiveness in answering questions and its failure to implement statutory requirements, including a 1990 law that gave INS law enforcement personnel general arrest authority. "Common sense would dictate that a law that has been on the books for eight years ought to be enforced," Grassley said.
Rep. Harold Rogers, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee's panel with jurisdiction over INS, is even more blunt. "We've been extremely supportive of INS because it was the only place we had to go to try to control the borders," he says. "We've been patient with the new management but, for God's sake, this is unbelievable.
"We've put on hundreds of new border patrol agents every year for the last several years, trying to give INS enough manpower to protect the borders, and what we get back are these endless, ceaseless scandals of all sorts of turpitude, and crimes, and absolutely an agency that's shot through from top to bottom with ineptness.
"We now have to restore credibility to the immigration system--not just save an agency," he says.
Every year, Rogers notes, more illegal aliens enter the United States than are removed, despite the dramatic increase in resources for enforcement activities. More than 5 million illegal aliens already live in the United States, and about 250,000 more join them each year. In contrast, the INS removed only about 112,000 illegal aliens last year. And immigrants who legitimately seek green cards, asylum, naturalization or other benefits often encounter long waits, lost files and conflicting instructions from INS personnel.
In addition, Rogers says, the current applications processes lack adequate safeguards to detect fraud, a growing problem as border controls are tightened and illegal immigrants increasingly seek entrance to the United States with fraudulent documents.
But absorbing new personnel at the rate Congress has required has been tremendously complicated. The process for screening and training new Border Patrol agents is one of the most rigorous among federal law enforcement programs, requiring trainees to have a working knowledge of Spanish and immigration law as well as proficiency in police skills. Thanks to better screening of candidates, the wash-out rate among new recruits is about 16 percent now, compared to 30 percent two years ago.
"It's very difficult to grow at the rate we're growing and maintain quality," says Michael Nicley, deputy chief of the Border Patrol. "There's always pressure to get those people on board. It's taken extraordinary effort to ensure that quality is sustained."
Finding and retaining quality personnel is not just a problem for the Border Patrol. Joseph LaCombe, the INS' port director at Dulles International Airport in northern Virginia, says dealing with labor shortages is the biggest headache of his job. Walking through the airport, he points to various inspectors and predicts how much time will pass before each of them finds better paying, more rewarding jobs elsewhere.
"We have a credible need for experience, which we are not developing, and that scares me," LaCombe says. It takes years to develop the kind of expertise that makes a seasoned inspector. Spotting forged documents or people traveling under assumed identities in a matter of seconds, the time an inspector has to make such a call, takes experience, education, language and cultural skills--all of which are in short supply. LaCombe has grown weary of hiring and training inspectors only to see them leave INS for other agencies, such as the Defense Intelligence Agency or the Drug Enforcement Administration, where the pay and benefits for comparable jobs are higher.
"Inspectors need a better reason to stay inspectors--we've got to address that," he says. The situation is not helped by what he sees as indifferent management at INS. He recalls the experience of some of his inspectors who submitted a proposal to a headquarters review committee for reforming the visa waiver form. "The theory is that an idea that has merit will rise to the top. These journeymen got together, came up with what was really a very good idea, put a lot of work into it, made a professional presentation and sent it through the proper channels. And they got no response." When LaCombe followed up with staff at INS headquarters, he was told that the committee had responded, so he requested the committee resend the response. Again, nothing happened.
"Maybe that seems like a minor thing, but I'll tell you that really turned off these kids," LaCombe says. But he wasn't surprised by the lack of response. "One of the biggest problems INS has in general is we have all kinds of managers but no leaders. We spend an awful lot of time trying to shift blame around. There is just no loyalty in INS--no loyalty up the chain of command and no loyalty down."
The fundamental problem, says Baltimore district director Ferro, is that there is no national consensus on immigration policy, so the INS is continually buffeted by the prevailing political winds. "We're not ready to deal with the social ramifications of enforcing our immigration laws," he says.
The political pressure was evident in the Citizenship USA program, and it is evident in the agency's approach to work site inspections. Surprise inspections of work sites believed to employ illegal aliens are viewed as a critical component of controlling illegal immigration and thwarting employers exploiting cheap labor. When illegal workers are found, employers are fined and illegal immigrants are deported.
But such actions often spark protests from immigrant interest groups and investigations of agents' conduct, usually prompted by lawmakers under pressure from interest groups. "Now we have a community [of immigrants willing to protest inspections] that 10 years ago wouldn't have peeped, even when they should have," Ferro says.
To better manage the political fallout, INS headquarters last spring issued new procedures for inspections. Among the changes, district directors must now receive approval from their regional offices before conducting inspections. And if a regional director deems a particular inspection would be "sensitive" in terms of its "media impact or community impact," the request must be approved by headquarters, says INS Baltimore district spokesman John Shallman. "It forces us to plan these inspections a little further in advance, and I'm not sure that's a bad thing," he says.
Others are less confident. The new procedures add a layer of bureaucracy and slow the inspection process at a time when the agency is under fire from critics who say it doesn't do enough to deter illegal immigration. Ferro estimates the Baltimore office conducts about 25 percent fewer inspections as a result of the new procedures, though it's too soon to know the impact for sure, he says. One INS investigator says the changes are another example of headquarters' insensitivity to the needs of law enforcement officers: "This is like telling a city police department it needs to get approval from the governor's office before making arrests. This would never happen in another enforcement agency. People who think INS has some sort of law-enforcement mentality don't know what they're talking about. We have our hands tied all the time."
INS' failures are the result of many years of neglect by top managers, Justice Department officials and members of Congress, Justice Inspector General Michael Bromwich told members of the House immigration and claims subcommittee last year. Despite the influx of resources, the agency continues to have "very many, very significant problems," he said.
It is a fact of which Meissner and her staff are well aware. "We're in the middle of working our way out of a crisis situation," says Deputy Commissioner Wyrsch. Antiquated processes, inadequate information technology and an extraordinary workload have been a recipe for disaster, she says. "In many of our large offices, we totally broke down in terms of responsibility."
All that is changing, she says. The administration's plan would eliminate the current field structure of three regional offices and 33 district offices where enforcement and service functions are now performed, replacing them with separate service area and enforcement area offices, each overseeing smaller offices specializing in either service or enforcement functions. Both the new service and enforcement organizations would continue to share access to INS data and remain under INS headquarters. Maintaining connectivity between enforcement and service operations is essential because both need to share data and information, she says, although the separate chains of command for personnel should alleviate many of the problems the agency currently experiences.
The district directors oppose the administration's plan. Robert Brown, the Cleveland district director and chairman of the Immigration Directors' Association, testified against it in May before the House subcommittee on immigration and claims. Separating the enforcement and service functions would only give rise to more of the kinds of problems encountered in the Citizenship USA program, where enforcement was largely absent from the process, Brown says.
"The agency is pulled in different directions by interest groups whose missions are much more focused and frankly more narrow than the agency's overall responsibilities. It is precisely on those occasions that INS must maintain a balance within its overall responsibilities of both enforcement and benefit," he says. The Immigration Director's Association recommends that instead of restructuring, dual deputies be installed at the headquarters, regional and district levels--one to oversee enforcement and the other to oversee the administration of benefits.
Wyrsch says she is not concerned about the district directors' dissent. "It's important to recognize they didn't testify in the capacity of federal employees. They testified as members of an association about their personal views. It's difficult for me to assess the extent to which they represent their entire organization," she says.
"The district directors were unanimous," says Brown. "But of course, we're civil servants and we'll do what's required."
One INS field manager says the administration's plan may be the right approach, but he has little confidence it will be carried out. "My fear is this is just a political ploy to stave off a worse fate," he says, echoing the concerns of others. "Look, even if I thought [the administration's] plan was a good one, and I don't think anybody really knows yet if it is, I doubt very much [INS leadership] will be able to implement it and make it work. They don't have a very good track record as far as I'm concerned and frankly, those of us working where the rubber meets the road don't have a lot of confidence that the folks at headquarters are capable or willing to do the right thing."
That is a perception Meissner and other INS leaders will have to overcome if they are to be successful.
Government Executive will closely examine management at INS and 14 other federal agencies as part of the Government Performance Project--a comprehensive review of federal management practices--in our February 1999 issue. For more information, go to www.govexec.com/gpp