n the days following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the Zogby International polling firm asked Americans whether the government "is doing enough to control the border and to screen people allowed into the country." Zogby conducted the poll for the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington group that backs tougher restrictions on immigration. Seventy-seven percent of respondents said "not enough." Eighty-five percent agreed that the "enforcement of immigration laws and the border has been too lax, and this made it easier for the terrorists to enter the country."
So there, after years of debate about what to do about the estimated 2 million people who attempt to enter the country illegally each year and the estimated 9 million already living here illegally, the Immigration and Naturalization Service finally appeared to have a mandate.
Then, on March 11, came bad news from Florida. Huffman Aviation International, a flight school in Venice, Fla., that had trained Sept. 11 hijackers Mohammed Atta and Marwan Al-Shehhi, received a letter confirming the INS' decision to grant the two men student visas. Although the letters were nothing more than a formality, confirming visa approvals made before the attacks, the news shocked the nation. If the INS had won a mandate in the wake of Sept. 11, it lost it on March 11.
INS Commissioner James Ziglar touts restructuring of the INS-the separation of the agency's service and enforcement divisions-as the key to better management. But in the wake of the Huffman Aviation fiasco, Congress and the Bush administration are considering more far-reaching proposals about how to fix the beleaguered agency, and it seems increasingly likely that the INS may now be restructured right out of existence.
The INS has a long history of mismanagement, but not all of its problems are of its own making. America is split between those who favor more immigration and those who would restrict it, and that division has a big impact on the agency's ability to manage for results. It has a particularly negative effect on the agency's enforcement officers. The INS services unit, which handles the adjudication of applications for green cards, work visas and citizenship, has suffered for years from backlogs and long processing times. But the solution is relatively simple. The INS needs to convince Congress to ensure that it has the staff and technology to process more than 6 million applications for immigration benefits each year. Then it must use the funding to process applications in a timely and judicious manner.
The agency's law enforcement officers never have had clear goals. Because of the country's ambivalence about immigration, the agency's enforcement staff-charged with policing the borders and the interior-have no consistent targets.
It would seem that the agency's job is to stop illegal immigration, but that's not exactly true. In the Southwest, the INS' goal simply is to "create a manageable border, a safe border," says INS Deputy Associate Commissioner for Enforcement Joe Greene. In fact, INS Border Patrol agents complain loudly about limits on pursuing and catching illegal aliens. But Greene says protecting communities along the border is a higher priority than catching every alien.
Turnover is high among Border Patrol agents, and pay is low. Agents start at the GS-5 level, making $22,000 a year. About one-third get the maximum, $52,000. Federal air marshals, by contrast, start at $35,000 and max out at $80,000. As a result, the Border Patrol is losing scores of agents to the air marshals. After hitting a low of 10 percent last year, turnover at the Border Patrol is likely to be at least 14 percent this year.
Commissioner Ziglar says the agency is "suffering enormous attrition." And high turnover, he says, goes beyond the Border Patrol. It also hits the agency's inspectors, who want, but don't have, federal law enforcement status and therefore receive less generous retirement benefits. In addition, Ziglar points out that the agency is allotted only 56 Senior Executive Service slots, substantially fewer than other agencies of similar size. "In order for this agency to succeed, we need senior managers," he says. Ziglar pegs the cost of fixing the agency's human resources problems at about $70 million a year.
Meanwhile, if the agency's border enforcement goals are unclear, those affecting the nation's workplaces are positively murky. "What we are able to do is address the harms caused by illegal migration," Greene says. That would include citizens displaced from their jobs by illegal immigrants. But in recent years-with the nation almost fully employed-the nation's workplaces have gone unpoliced. Greene is putting it politely when he says that INS investigators have had "a range of diverse missions" in recent years. One year, INS investigators are arresting illegal workers at meatpacking plants. The next, they're deporting aliens caught committing crimes. The next, they're tracking terrorists. And investigators can expect each task to inspire fire-breathing critiques from Congress, the news media, advocates for immigrants, business, civil libertarians and community leaders.
Ziglar, who had no immigration experience before coming to the agency last year, says Attorney General John Ashcroft and President Bush personally recruited him for the job. Ashcroft and Bush told Ziglar they wanted a strong manager-they cited his Wall Street experience-and said they wanted him to restructure the agency and cut service backlogs. Neither man stressed enforcement. Though Sept. 11 changed Ziglar's priorities, he still is implementing a restructuring plan aimed at making the INS more efficient. Under the plan, the INS' service and enforcement sides will have separate chains of command. Every employee will have a boss to whom he or she will be solely accountable, and all will work under more rational performance standards.
Following the March 11 snafu, however, the House Judiciary Committee passed legislation that would go further, separating INS' service and enforcement divisions into two separate agencies. And Tom Ridge, director of the Office of Homeland Security, has renewed his call for a new border control agency that would combine parts of the INS with the Customs Service. No one, as yet, is addressing what the nation's border security goals should be.
Ziglar says restructuring is still necessary. "We have been doing things the same way for years just because that's always the way it was done. No one ever asked the question, 'Is that the best way?' " After taking over, Ziglar began to look systematically at agency programs, although he acknowledges that his efforts were interrupted by the Sept. 11 attacks. He now says his restructuring effort would complement any move to place the INS within a larger border security agency.
A Daunting TaskEven just after the Sept. 11 attacks, when INS' mission seemed clearly to focus on preventing further terrorist successes, the agency appeared unfit for the job. Indeed, in the days immediately following the attacks, when the government closed the borders and sent INS agents to secure the airports, Border Patrol agents told Government Executive the agency was ill-prepared to implement such emergency measures.
INS' response was "a knee-jerk reaction," said Phil Leveck, a Border Patrol union vice president and Laredo, Texas, agent. Border Patrol agents interviewed for this story insisted on being identified with their union affiliation for fear of reprisals by agency management. Union leaders cannot be fired or disciplined for speaking to the media. After the Sept. 11 attacks, two Michigan agents were nearly fired for criticizing security on the border with Canada on a television news show. Members of Congress and the Justice Department's inspector general blocked the dismissals, citing whistleblower protections.
Better emergency planning might help INS respond to future terrorist attacks, but the INS does not have the resources to prevent future attacks, agency officials acknowledge-an amazing fact considering that the agency has doubled in size over the last 10 years. In 1993, the agency employed 18,400 people. It now has 36,400 workers. Meanwhile, the INS budget has rocketed upwards from $1.5 billion in 1993 to $6.2 billion in 2002.
But the vast majority of the INS' budget increases during the 1990s were aimed at beefing up enforcement along the U.S.-Mexican border, deterring illegal aliens while providing security for border communities plagued by crime. The number of Border Patrol agents on the Southwest border has risen from 3,389 to nearly 10,000 over the last 10 years. But the Border Patrol efforts were aimed at Mexican migrant workers, not terrorists.
The INS has tightened its procedures since last fall's attacks, and is sharing more information with the State Department's Bureau of Consular Affairs, but Michael Bromwich, a former Justice Department inspector general, says the INS is doing little to make sure visitors admitted into the United States don't overstay their visas. At the same time, 28 countries have visa waiver agreements with the United States, and citizens of those countries can travel to the United States without any visa at all.
President Bush's proposed INS budget for 2003 continues to emphasize border enforcement. The budget calls for an additional $711.7 million in border control funding and 1,790 new positions. If Congress approves the Bush budget, nearly 900 Border Patrol agents will guard the 4,000-mile U.S. border (excluding Alaska) with Canada, 285 more agents than currently are there.
Those agents have a daunting task. Representatives of the National Border Patrol Council, an affiliate union of the American Federation of Government Employees, say that morale is extremely low among the rank and file and that many agents believe that heightened security steps ordered by the INS have been poorly implemented. The northern border "isn't secure now or any time," says a Maine agent who requested anonymity. "Even with the best of electronics and remote cameras, you couldn't" secure the border with so few agents, he says.
Small Numbers, Limited ToolsINS investigators-2,000 staffers charged with apprehending illegal aliens in the nation's interior-have an equally difficult task. According to INS estimates, there are 9 million illegal immigrants in the United States, and four out of every 10-about 3.5 million people-arrived here legally and overstayed their visas. All of the terrorists involved in the Sept. 11 attacks entered the country legally, but at least three overstayed their visas.
For years, the INS has not enforced visa time limits, and efforts to police workplaces have run up against opposition from the business community, immigrant advocates, community leaders and Congress. Instead, the agency's investigators have focused solely on criminal aliens.
"It's like a cop trying to catch speeders," says one INS investigator. "You can't catch everyone, so you set the radar at 70 mph. We concentrate on aliens convicted of crimes."
To make matters worse, the small force of INS agents has limited tools at its disposal. The current entry-exit system "doesn't present an accurate or timely picture of who's leaving," says INS Director of Public Affairs Russ Bergeron. Earlier this year, President Bush called for the implementation of a more accurate entry and exit system by 2005. This system would track the arrival and departure of visa holders. But given the INS' lack of investigative personnel, it's not clear what the agency would do even if it had the names of every person overstaying a visa. One thing is clear: It's not planning on going after all of them.
'Focusing Mightily'Instead, says INS enforcement chief Greene, "Sept. 11 has had the effect of focusing us mightily." Whereas the agency once conducted workplace raids at chicken factories and meatpacking plants, it now is investigating workforces at airports, nuclear power plants, reservoirs and other workplaces deemed critical to national security. For the first time, the INS is entering into the National Crime Information Center database the names of people who have fled after being ordered deported. All U.S. law enforcement officers have access to this database, and as a result, absconders can be caught while simply running red lights.
Despite the heightened importance of such activities, the Bush administration's 2003 budget proposal would boost spending on interior enforcement at INS by only $19.7 million. It would add 137 new positions. Forty-eight new INS special agents would be assigned to the Joint Terrorism Task Force, a cooperative effort with the FBI. Seventy-eight new employees would boost INS' intelligence- gathering abilities.
In the area of new technology, the administration would spend $28 million to enhance enforcement databases and provide border patrol agents with access to FBI and other law enforcement fingerprint databases, as well as biometric and biographical information gathered by U.S. law enforcement agencies. It would spend another $51.7 million on surveillance technology to monitor isolated border crossing points. The administration already is working with colleges, universities and trade schools on a new system to monitor foreign students in the United States. In April, Ziglar announced that the agency would immediately require foreign students to have student visas before commencing studies. Previously, foreign students could begin studies with tourist or business visas while waiting for the INS to approve their change of status.
Past efforts to upgrade technology at the INS have met with little success. The agency spent more than $2 billion on new technology in the 1990s, but, according to a 2001 GAO report (GAO-01-488), agency examiners at district offices still process applications by hand. "As a result, these offices cannot determine the number of pending cases, identify problem areas or bottlenecks, establish processing priorities, deploy staff based on workload and ensure cases are processed in the order received," the report said. On the enforcement side, a plan launched in 1999 to integrate the INS fingerprinting system with that of the FBI-in an effort to help both agencies identify aliens involved in crimes-has run into cost overruns and delays. Ziglar admitted to the House Judiciary Immigration Subcommittee in March that "antiquated technology systems and overly bureaucratic processes that exist at INS" had allowed Al-Shehhi and Atta to get their student visas.
INS officials don't deny the deficiencies of the past, but insist that the agency is taking steps to convince Congress and the administration of its need for resources, while getting the most out of the INS budget by improving management structures. INS Executive Associate Commissioner for Management George Bohlinger says the INS has taken steps to review its technology investments. In the past, the agency's information technology office controlled all technology expenditures. Now, he says, a committee of top INS managers determines how IT funds are distributed.
Structure StricturesFor years, INS officials have said that management has suffered because of the way the agency is structured. The INS' dual missions-service and enforcement-need to be separated, they say, and clear chains of command established. And the agency's headquarters needs to exert more control over its field staff.
Ziglar's restructuring plan-announced last November-"will bring the agency into the 21st century," says Richard Cravener, the director of the restructuring office. After Sept. 11, the agency decided to move ahead with an administrative restructuring rather than wait for Congress to act. But the INS will need Congress to approve additional resources to fully implement the plan.
Under the plan, the agency will be split into two bureaus, one for enforcement and one for immigration services. The move aims to halt agency infighting over resources. Previously, INS regional and district directors were given one budget and considerable freedom over how to spend the money, a situation that often led to accusations that one priority or another was being shortchanged. Under the restructuring plan, each of the new bureaus will have its own budget, and the INS will close its three regional and 33 district offices, replacing them with nine enforcement areas and six service areas across the country. Both bureaus will remain under the supervision of the INS commissioner. Ziglar has already begun to implement his plan. In mid-April, he announced that top Border Patrol agents would no longer report to INS regional directors, and instead would report directly to the agency's enforcement chief in Washington.
Ziglar's plan also establishes a chief information officer and a chief financial officer at INS. For years, the agency has been plagued with financial management problems. In 2000, the INS earned its first passing audit. It bested that feat in 2001 with an unqualified audit opinion, but according to a report by the Justice Department's inspector general that year, "The INS had to expend a tremendous amount of personnel and money in a year-end effort to obtain this opinion."
Bohlinger doesn't deny that the process was laborious, but defends it: "Six years ago, our books were deemed to be unauditable," he says. "Through a Herculean effort we have come from unauditable books to an absolutely clean audit this year." He adds that the agency is now in the process of rolling out a new financial management system, allowing managers real-time access to financial data. The INS also is working to resolve its property management woes. According to the Justice Department IG, the INS does not perform or document physical asset inventories and does not record all of its acquisitions of property. As a result, at the time of the inspector general's investigation, which began in 1998 and culminated in the 2001 report, the INS could not account for approximately 61,000 items worth at least $68.9 million. These problems "exist because of an apparent lack of management resolve to correct deficiencies and to hold employees accountable," the inspector general concluded.
David Yentzer, assistant INS commissioner for management, says the IG's charge is overblown. He notes that the INS itself conducted the first-ever inventory of agency property. The agency has taken steps, he added, to safeguard firearms and to maintain its detention facilities.
Restructuring clearly is part of the solution, according to Bohlinger. Under Ziglar's plan, INS investigators, who until recently had no systematic way of communicating with investigators in other district offices, will become part of a unified organization. An ombudsman will respond to complaints from the public. The full implementation of the restructuring plan-assuming that Congress provides the resources to do it-will take two to three years, says Cravener. The Bush administration has requested $40 million to complete the restructuring, but there is opposition in Congress. Moreover, the administration has complicated the situation by proposing to move the INS into a new federal border control agency, merging it with the Customs Service.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., says the administration's plan "is inadequate for truly restructuring" the INS. "It does not go far enough for the rescue mission that is needed-both on the enforcement side and the immigration side." Sensenbrenner sponsored the legislation the committee passed in March to split the INS into two agencies. But Cravener defends the administration's plan. He says an administrative restructuring can be implemented more quickly and more easily altered if problems arise down the road.
Likewise, keeping INS enforcement and services under one umbrella will allow INS investigators easy access to information they need to do their jobs. "Putting these two functions into separate agencies would really tie the hand behind the back of those enforcement people, and make it difficult to combat visa fraud and smuggling," Cravener says. "We need to share our databases."
Speeding ServicesBill Yates, head of the INS' Services Unit, says Ziglar's restructuring will focus the agency's service-side personnel and hold them accountable for meeting performance standards. "Right now, the field managers that I'm dealing with for backlog reduction and processing improvements have multiple areas of responsibility," he says. "So while they are trying to handle detention and removal issues, investigations, criminal prosecutions and inspections, immigration services is just one more set of tasks. Under restructuring, from the person who's actually dealing directly with the public up through me, everyone is 100 percent dedicated to immigration services." Yates says that already-even before restructuring-the INS has seen improvements in its service function as a result of management changes launched this year. Using money the agency has collected by offering faster visa processing to those able to pay a $1,000 fee, the agency is hiring new personnel, implementing new training programs and acquiring technology to better track applications and reduce backlogs.
Previously, the agency's service side could not improve its performance for lack of funding, according to Yates. The INS is allowed to charge immigrants only the exact cost of adjudicating their applications, a fee that is adjusted every other year. The new premium processing fee wasn't set so scientifically, Yates admits. But to fund any improvements to the system, INS had to convince Congress to appropriate funds, and the agency had failed to do so for years. Winning a unified budget-one in which certain funds are not tied to particular uses-has been an ongoing struggle. But offering premium processing gave the INS a means of raising funds beyond its costs, and Congress a means of helping the INS without using taxpayer dollars.
In addition, a new Office of Production Management is now training service-side managers in the art of "capacity planning," which, Yates explains, involves teaching managers how to forecast growth in their workloads and plan accordingly. "We know how long it takes to adjudicate every type of application, how many cases can be handled per hour," Yates says. "Now anyone can come in here and say, 'Why did Los Angeles get 300 adjudicating positions?' We pull out the spread sheet and show them the forecasting." As a result of these management changes, and the planned restructuring, Yates says the INS will eliminate its backlog of immigration applications within two years and reduce the time it takes to process applications to 30 days.
"We're not happy with where we are. People will complain bitterly about wait times and they are right," Yates says. "But two years ago, we had 2.2 million naturalizations pending. Now we are down to about 600,000. Wait times that were three years are now nine to 10 months." That said, the agency's overall backlog has actually increased to 4.8 million applications, nearly 1 million more than a year ago.
Enhancing EnforcementOn the enforcement side, Greene says restructuring will help the agency carry out large-scale investigations. "What has happened in the past when we've dealt with national conspiracies is that one office would pick up a string of that conspiracy, and another office would pick up another string. And there have been times when offices spent a lot of resources on the same set of criminal acts without knowing it. There was no coordination." Under the restructuring plan, all INS investigators will report to one national chief, rather than to 33 separate district directors.
In addition, Greene says the restructuring will improve the means by which the INS measures personnel performance. Currently, he says, "nobody gets any credit for contributing to the outcome of an investigation that is assigned to another office." Under a proposed redesign of the performance measurement system, field managers will get a plus mark for working cooperatively with their colleagues in other parts of the country. In the past, says Greene, "You had offices fighting over who had the lead in an investigation, who got the credit, all those sorts of organization turf things."
Finally, says Greene, INS headquarters will "to a much greater degree assign work" to the field. Currently, he adds, "the only leverage that headquarters has to coordinate and direct an investigation is money. We've used budget to direct field resources. Restructuring will solve that problem."
Of course, with the agency's budget not yet approved, and the Bush administration's April announcement of support for the House restructuring bill, the INS' funding and structure remain works in progress. Says Bergeron: "Since the mid-1990s, there has been a significant infusion of resources. When you look at the scope of the mission, restructuring will make us more efficient, but concurrent with that, there needs to be a continuing evaluation of our resources." Given the infusion of resources the agency has already received-and the lack of results those funds have borne-the INS may have lost the chance for additional help.
Immigration and Naturalization Service
Parent department: Justice
Mission: To determine the admissibility of persons seeking entry and to adjust the status of and provide other benefits to legally entitled noncitizens within the country with proper regard for equity and due process.
Top official: James Ziglar