Experts say INS restructuring won't solve management problems

Analysts say that congressional proposals aimed at overhauling the 37,000-person INS will do little to turn around the service.

The only thing missing was champagne. "With this bill, the House has abolished the INS," declared a victorious Rep. James Sensenbrenner Jr., R-Wis., on April 25. The House of Representatives had just passed his bill to scrap the Immigration and Naturalization Service and start over from scratch, a vote that ended his years-long crusade to dismantle the troubled agency.

But even as House members celebrate, analysts say that congressional proposals aimed at overhauling the 37,000-person INS will do little to turn around the service. "I think it's been greatly oversold," said David A. Martin, former INS general counsel.

Aided by a cascade of recent INS security breaches, Sensenbrenner's bill passed with more than 400 votes. It would disband the INS and establish a new associate attorney general for immigration affairs, who would set policy for, but not directly manage, two separate bureaus--one for immigration services and one for immigration enforcement. Each bureau would have its own budget and hiring procedures as well as its own congressional and public affairs operations.

The Senate's version, introduced May 1, is similar but would vest more authority in the new agency chief to influence management of the services and enforcement sides. Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., a co-sponsor of the bill, hopes to get it out of committee and to the Senate floor before appropriations bills flood the summer calendar.

But the INS will find salvation in neither the House nor the Senate bill, experts say. A restructured INS will still have no way to evaluate employee performance and no real ability to reward top workers or fire bad ones. It will still have a bevy of badly mangled computer systems hampering the work of earnest employees. And it will still be searching for better strategies to both reduce the backlog of citizenship applications and keep the bad apples out.

In truth, there's probably little that Congress can do to address internal management problems at the INS, aside from requiring the head of the new immigration agency to give progress reports. And although proponents of these bills herald a new era of accountability for this country's immigration system, both bills require the attorney general to report only on the reorganization process, not on whether the new organization is making the country any more secure.

What will determine the success or failure of a new agency will be the triumvirate at the top--its chief and the czars for service and enforcement, said Demetrios G. Papademetriou, co-director of the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank. "It will require an iron will and probably an iron fist," he said.

The challenge for any new immigration chief will be to redesign employee incentives to reward good work and punish bad work. "I think that, selectively, a significant proportion of the top management of the agency will have to be fired or reassigned," said Papademetriou, who spent four years running immigration policy at the Labor Department. "You do need to have flexibility to reassign people, downgrade people, discipline people, and fire people for cause." But federal civil service laws often tie managers' hands. Martin, for example, bemoaned incidents during his INS tenure when, he says, employees shielded themselves from dismissal by making often-unfounded claims for federal whistleblower protections.

Current INS agents say firing unproductive employees would certainly boost morale. "Obviously there's certain people who don't pull their weight," said one INS border agent. On this point, the House and Senate bills offer just a bit of help. They allow the head of the immigration agency to offer buyouts to recalcitrant employees, and the House bill offers a pilot project to give the attorney general some additional disciplinary discretion.

Faster promotions and better bonuses would also help stem the flow of good immigration agents into the growing sky marshals program, which pays 10 percent more than the INS and offers law enforcement retirement benefits. "It's a huge problem here," said one INS border agent who recently filed his application for sky marshal.

What Congress really needs to do is make up its mind and get out of the way, says Papademetriou. Congressional micromanagement has caused many of the INS' current problems, he said. Plus, by calling the INS commissioner in every other week to explain the snafu-du-jour, Congress has forced INS officials to divert attention from agency management to preparation for the next congressional testimony, Papademetriou said.

The White House has been sending mixed messages, too. It was determined to fix the INS without congressional intervention--until its sudden endorsement of Sensenbrenner's bill the day before the vote. Still looming is the Homeland Security Council's proposal to merge the INS and Customs Service and house them in the Justice Department. President Bush is considering it, but has said nothing since receiving the recommendation in March.

"INS reorganization makes absolutely no sense until we decide what's happening with the alleged border-security agency. I don't want to redo the wheel twice," said Kathleen Walker, an immigration lawyer in El Paso, Texas. "I'm just having a hernia over it. What the hell are they doing?"