INS chief adapts agency to new law enforcement role

From the window of his corner office, James W. Ziglar could see the smoke billowing from the Pentagon as he prepared to rush to the emergency command post where key federal officials gathered September 11. Speeding out the door, Ziglar remarked, "Our lives just changed completely. And certainly this job just changed."

Sworn in just a month earlier as commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, Ziglar had no idea just how much change was in store for him.

"It's been a crazy five months," says Ziglar, 56, who is earning rave reviews from unexpected corners of Washington for being "up front," "a breath of fresh air," and "very smart." A Wall Street and Washington insider with no prior experience in immigration policy, he has earned such kudos by leading an agency long criticized as dysfunctional but propelled to the frontlines of homeland defense by the events of September 11.

How did he win over potential critics, including immigration advocacy groups? "I bought `em off," he jokes.

Actually, part of what he's done is to make himself very visible. He's probably clocked more airtime on live television than any of his predecessors as he's helped launch the President's Foreign Terrorist Tracking Task Force, cracked down on deportees who have failed to leave, brokered a border security agreement with Canada, and unveiled his proposal to restructure the INS. Ziglar's high profile means he'll get more leeway and money to make the changes he deems necessary, experts predict. But it raises expectations about his performance.

"It's an opportunity. At the same time, it also carries a responsibility," said former INS General Counsel Paul Virtue. "And if that responsibility is not carried out, the consequences are going to be more publicly known."

When first approached about becoming INS commissioner, Ziglar was skeptical. He was two weeks away from his scheduled return to PaineWebber Inc., where he'd been managing director from 1990-98. "I protested that I didn't know anything," he recalls. "I didn't even know where the INS was located."

Ziglar definitely did know his way around Washington, though. In the 1960s, the Mississippi native had clerked at the Supreme Court and worked for Sen. James O. Eastland, D-Miss., then-chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Ziglar joined a New York law firm in 1973 and turned to investment banking in 1980. He moved back to Washington during the Reagan Administration to serve as the assistant secretary of the Interior in charge of the Bureau of Mines and the U.S. Geological Survey. He returned again in 1998 to become the Senate's sergeant at arms.

Now, Ziglar says he's more than up to the challenge of running the INS. He's set his sights on remaking the agency and its reputation while meeting the new law enforcement demands placed on it since September 11. He has other projects, too, such as cutting the red tape that slows international adoptions.

The commissioner didn't sleep much the night of September 11-or any night that week-as he and others at the Justice Department plotted their next moves. The INS quickly deployed 1,000 agents to investigate the hijackers and figure out how they had entered the country. Ziglar also reassigned Border Patrol officials to airports and shifted a great many from the Mexican to the Canadian border. And he ordered the head of the Border Patrol and key regional directors to report directly to him.

Appointed because of his management skills and, perhaps, because Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott was a boyhood pal, Ziglar took the helm of the INS in August with two charges from President Bush: Reorganize the place, and reduce the backlog of citizenship applications. But the September 11 attacks have forced him into an uneasy role as top immigration cop.

"Going forward," he says, "it's clear that the enforcement side of this agency will be a more and more important factor. I am not a law enforcement person. Putting myself in the law enforcement mentality, if you will-personally, that's been the biggest challenge."

As his enforcement responsibilities mount, Ziglar is still committed to fulfilling Bush's initial orders. Restructuring the INS is even more critical now because the nation needs a well-functioning immigration agency more than ever before, he says.

In November, he unveiled a proposal that would divide the agency into enforcement and service branches, each with its own executive commissioners reporting directly to him. The aim, Ziglar says, is to make the agency do both of its primary tasks better by allowing most of its staff to focus on one or the other, instead of being pulled in two directions.

INS restructuring proposals have failed in the past, but Ziglar's strengths improve his plan's chances. "Here's a person who has many political skills, probably more political skills than any of his predecessors, and he has a certain unflappability about him while being serious about his job," said Demetrios G. Papademetriou, co-director of the Migration Policy Institute. "Managing 35,000 employees and managing them toward a common goal is going to be Jim Ziglar's challenge, and he's more poised to meet this challenge than anyone."

Some of his poise may flow from knowing that he has a bipartisan cheering section that includes not only Lott, but also Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass. In fact, Ziglar is perhaps the only Bush appointee with a framed, autographed picture of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., on his office wall-part of a six-picture collection several Democrats gave him when he stepped down as sergeant at arms. He'd won praise for his deft handling of President Clinton's impeachment trial. And both Lott and Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., introduced him at the confirmation hearing for his current post.

More recently, Kennedy, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee's Immigration Subcommittee, noted with approval that, "After September 11, Jim assured the nation that we were dealing with a terrorism problem, not an immigration problem." That tack has earned Ziglar positive reviews internationally, too. "Jim, in some ways, has been a breath of fresh air," one Canadian official said.

Immigration groups, initially wary of his lack of immigration experience, have rallied behind Ziglar. Angela Kelley, deputy director of the National Immigration Forum, said she's surprised to find herself saying: "He's very smart. He's a quick study, and he's got the right instincts on this issue."

Even former INS Commissioner Doris Meissner says her successor will probably have an easier time making changes than she had. "The environment then was very partisan and very mistrusting of the [Clinton] Administration," she recalls. "It should be different now with the same party in at least the presidency and the House."

Also working in Ziglar's favor is the aging of the INS workforce. Sixteen percent of the INS is eligible to retire within the next five years, so workers upset by restructuring might decide to leave rather than to resist.

Strangely enough, the only flak Ziglar has caught so far on Capitol Hill has been from his own party. House Judiciary Chairman F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., R-Wis., and Immigration Subcommittee Chairman George W. Gekas, R-Pa., have introduced their own INS restructuring plan. Their proposal would make an even bigger separation between enforcement and service.

The Bush Administration insists that it can move ahead on restructuring-with or without Congress's blessing. House Republicans seem determined to write some restructuring plan into law. But the Senate seems willing to give Ziglar a free hand for now. "Jim unveiled a balanced and thoughtful INS reform plan that, in part, is built on a Senate plan that had significant bipartisan support last year," Kennedy said.

Of course, analysts say, just slicing the INS into two nearly separate halves won't magically transform it into a more effective agency. What's needed most, in the view of Kathleen Walker, an immigration lawyer in El Paso, Texas, is plain old management-straightforward and timely directives from headquarters: "I see the memoranda that come down, and they're not very clear. They don't provide the training, and then people screw up," she says.

Ziglar says that his solution to the INS's management woes is to tell employees that he'll give clear orders, expect results, and personally take responsibility if his orders don't produce the desired outcomes. He's also wooing two outsiders to come to the agency for a couple years to help him overhaul INS's technology and financial operations. And Ziglar remains committed to reducing the 12-month backlog of citizenship applications.

The more progress Ziglar can make on the law enforcement front, the more he'll be able to push the rest of his agenda, according to the Migration Policy Institute's Papademetriou. "The commissioner has to show everyone that he's tough enough and determined enough to make the changes that are necessary to improve our security. And in doing so, he can create some leeway to manage the agency in the way that he sees fit," he said.

As Ziglar moves ahead, his success or failure may depend on what happens elsewhere in the Bush Administration. The Homeland Security Council is considering stripping the Border Patrol out of the INS and merging it with the Customs Service and the Coast Guard. That shift, many immigration experts say, would significantly undermine Ziglar.

If Ziglar is allowed to forge ahead, how will the nation know whether he has succeeded? A confident Ziglar raises his eyebrows and smiles: "You'll know."