TOPICS > Politics

Policing Immigration

March 26, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT


GWEN IFILL: Three hundred and fifty million foreign visitors enter the U.S. every year. But even the people who run the nation’s Immigration and Naturalization Service admit no one is doing a very good job of keeping track of them.

The INS is responsible for securing about 8,000 miles of U.S. border and some 250 ports of entry, a task so daunting, with backlogs that stretch so far, that two of the terrorists involved in the Sept. 11 attacks received their student visa approvals, mailed to this Florida flight school, six months after they died.

The incident sparked an uproar in the Bush Administration, and several proposals to overhaul, divide, or abolish the INS have now emerged.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: Well, it got my attention this morning when I read about that. I was stunned and not happy. Let me put it another way. I was plenty hot. It’s inexcusable. And so we’ve got to reform the INS, and we’ve got to push hard to do so. This is an interesting wake-up call for those who run the INS

ATTORNEY GENERAL JOHN ASHCROFT: Fortunately, I only damaged the television set in a minor way… when I got the news, which was rather infuriating, that the letter had been sent to the flight school.

I’ve asked the Inspector General of this Department to investigate, to clarify this situation, and I will hold individuals accountable. I’ve discussed the potential of disciplinary action regarding individuals who are responsible and accountable with the commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service. A breakdown of this kind is inexcusable, in my judgment.

GWEN IFILL: Four top INS officials were reassigned shortly after. This is not the first time the INS has been targeted for overhaul.

But the Sept. 11 attacks have brought the agency under increased scrutiny. All 19 hijackers who carried out the attacks arrived in the U.S. legally, with visas. Three had invalid visas by Sept. 11.

Now, Homeland Security Chief Tom Ridge has proposed merging parts of the INS, like the border control, with the Customs Service, combining functions now managed by the Departments of Justice and Treasury. President Bush has not yet signed off on the plan.

In Congress, some lawmakers say merely restructuring the agency is not enough, that the INS needs to be broken up entirely.

REP. F. JAMES SENSENBRENNER (R-WIS.): Every immigration commissioner has always restructured the agency, and things have gotten worse rather than better, as a result of an administrative restructuring.

GWEN IFILL: House Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner’s plan would split the INS in two, with one agency handling immigration services, and the other, border enforcement.

Most interested parties, including INS Commissioner James Ziglar, concede some change is needed. But it is still an open debate what reform will mean for one of the nation’s most beleaguered agencies.

GWEN IFILL: And we’ll open up that debate now to four immigration experts.

Doris Meissner was the commissioner of the INS during the Clinton Administration. She is now senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Peter Nunez was the Assistant Secretary of the Treasury for Enforcement in the first Bush Administration. He is now a political science lecturer at the University of San Diego. Angela Kelley is the Deputy Director at the National Immigration Forum, an immigration advocacy group. And Mark Krikorian is the Executive Director of the Center for Immigration Studies, an immigration think tank in Washington.

GWEN IFILL: So Doris Meissner, how big a problem are we talking about here?

DORIS MEISSNER: In terms of restructuring, the agency has needed to be restructured for quite a few years and Congress has had proposals before it from the Clinton administration and now from the Bush administration, essentially the same proposal. And it needs to be done. It’s a difficult agency.

It has grown enormously but it has grown in a very uneven way. The resources have been given heavily to the enforcement side of agency. There are tremendous needs, the benefits granting side of the agency.

It’s an agency that was chronically neglected for decades by both the executive branch and the Congress. It developed very bad habits because of that negligent but it’s also an agency that is really at the center of many critical things to the future of this country that we have to pay attention to.

It is critical to our labor force growth. It is critical to many constituencies, the business community, our economic productivity. And now we see as of Sept. 11 what a critical role it plays in national security.

GWEN IFILL: Peter Nunez when you worked with the INS, when you were in the first Bush administration, did the problems strike you as dire then as they seem to be now?

PETER NUNEZ: Well, it’s been dire for longer than the time I worked with the Bush Administration. I started in federal law enforcement in 1972. It was a problem then. It has continued unabated for the last 30 years.

I don’t quarrel with what Commissioner Meissner just said, although I think the problem goes way beyond restructuring INS. We need to look at the Customs Service, all the border management agencies and consider doing all of the fixes at one time not piece meal.

GWEN IFILL: Mark Krikorian, we just heard John Ashcroft and the president talk about how shocked and surprised they were about the surprising revelations about of the visa status of the two terrorists. Were you surprised?

MARK KIRKORIAN: I wasn’t surprised, and they shouldn’t have been either. The Congress and successive White Houses have not given INS the resources and even more importantly the political back-up, the commitment that the Immigration Service needs in order to do its job.

There are two things that need to be done before any reorganization takes place or for any reorganization to actually work. One is a commitment from Congress and the White House to actually enforce the law. This has not been the case in the past. The INS has, in fact, attempted to enforce the law and been told to stop.

And the second thing that has to be done is INS’s workload needs to be reduced wherever possible so they can get their act together: legal immigration, the admission of students and foreign workers, new amnesties, for instance.

All of these things need to be either reduced or avoided in the future so the INS can focus on putting its own house in order.

GWEN IFILL: Angela Kelley we are talking here about reducing amnesties and about reducing the INS workload. Is that the solution, or is it the beginning of the solution?

ANGELA KELLEY: Well, I think that the basic thinking is this: We are a nation of immigrants and a nation of laws. And the INS needs to do a better job at both welcoming immigrants that are coming to this country to build the American dream, and at the same time enforce laws and stop the bad guys from coming in.

Right now it is badly in need of reform. There are proposals on the table that I think need to be thoroughly vetted and thought through. It’s very important to separate the functions of service and enforcement. And I think that’s a common thread in most of proposals that you have seen.

What we have to have though is a strong leader at the top. It can’t be a guidance counselor the way Rep. Sensenbrenner suggests. We need a general who can lead the troops, not somebody who can just advise them. We need a strong central office that can coordinate both of those functions and ensure that the visa debacle of last week doesn’t happen again.

GWEN IFILL: But how do you do that? You laid out what sounds like a conflicting mission here welcoming people, yet keeping the terrorists out. How do you do that?

ANGELA KELLEY: I think it can be done, as I said, by separating service from enforcement. Right now those are very differing functions that are mixed up – that there’s not adequate resources; there’s not adequate accountability or authority.

The INS is very decentralized. There are 35 district offices that are really run like fiefdoms — by district directors, so you have varying results depending on quite frankly what office you happen to be in front of. That simply has to stop.

We need a strong leader at the top. We need a strong central office so that we can have policies and accountability that runs through the two separate chains — between service and enforcement.

I think it can be done and I think that Immigration has been an asset to this country; it is the genius of this nation. And we do ourselves a gross disservice by simply saying we have to stop immigration now, that somehow that’s going to solve the problem.

GWEN IFILL: Doris Meissner, is there as always — it’s always said that there’s a money problem whenever people talk about remaking agencies, the INS, the IRS.

Is there a money problem here too?

DORIS MEISSNER: Of course, there’s a money problem but there are all kinds of other problems. You don’t solve these things just with money but money is an essential element of it.

There has been dramatic growth in the immigration arena in the last five years but it’s been outpaced by the pace of immigration. We are at an absolutely peak period of immigration. The 1990s brought the largest number of people to this country ever in our history even with the fact that we are a nation of immigrants.

There has been a lot of money and there have also been very are dramatic reforms of the INS on many, many fronts. There is very much improved performance but it is outpaced by the demands and by the turmoil that surrounds the issue.

We haven’t decided as a country how we really feel about immigration. We constantly switch our view. There is not much of a consensus on many aspects of immigration. There is I think quite a consensus on effective border enforcement. But many other aspects of immigration are very uncertain. And agencies have a difficult time performing when they are constantly reacting to very dramatic shifts in public opinion and priority.

GWEN IFILL: So Peter Nunez, is this a cultural debate we’re having about what we really believe about immigration and its value to us, or is it a more practical debate about who is going to take charge as Angela Kelley was talking about, for instance, is Congress going to take charge?

PETER NUNEZ: Well, it’s probably both. But I think let’s remember here Congress has created this problem by the way it has enacted immigration and policy law over the last 30 years or more. They have created the problems or failed so solved the problems within the various border agencies.

So, yes, there are some philosophical issues to be resolved. I would disagree a little bit with Commissioner Meissner’s statement that there’s no consensus. I mean every poll that has been take money in this country in memory demonstrates that the American public wants less immigration and they don’t want any illegal immigration.

It’s the special interests that profit from increased immigration, that have made these laws such a hodge-podge and have made it almost impossible for INS to solve the problem.

GWEN IFILL: When you talk about special interests are you also talking about corporate interests who are interested in — have an interest in border control or tourism interests?

PETER NUNEZ: All of the above. The business community has been involved in developing immigration policy since 1882. They clearly are more interested in cheap labor than they are in any other aspect of what happens when we let people come here.

But the tourism industry, the travel industry, ethnic lobbies, the immigration lawyers, I mean there’s just an unending list of people who have prevented any real immigration reform going back to the debates in the early 1980’s that led to IRCA, the Immigration and Reform and Control Act of 1986.

GWEN IFILL: I’m going to give Angela Kelley a chance to respond since she’s the immigration lawyer.

ANGELA KELLEY: I’d like to. I’m not sure about these special interests that he’s talking about.

The way see it is quite frankly from the left to the constituencies from across the country are saying that immigration is a good thing for this country. Yes, it’s business, yes it’s labor, yes, it’s low skilled, yes, it’s high skilled; it’s religious communities; it’s ethnic communities.

The country is a different place, but we would argue that it’s a stronger place as a result of it. And now the INS needs to be adequately funded and it needs to quite frankly keep up and be able to enforce our laws so that we’re a safer nation and at the same time a welcoming nation as a nation of immigrants.

GWEN IFILL: Mark Krikorian —

PETER NUNEZ: Then we should limit the immigration, the amount of immigration to the ability of the government to manage it, not the other way around.

Let’s not just throw the doors open and sacrifice some INS officials at the threshold. Let’s match what we’re going to what the resources are available to deal with it.

GWEN IFILL: Mark Krikorian, since Sept. 11 has the debate changed or altered?

MARK KIRKORIAN: It seems to have altered in the minds of the public clearly, and to some degree within Congress also.

Before Sept. 11 there was the idea developing in Congress promoted by these special interest groups that benefit from high immigration that borders were passé, they were an anachronism, they’re more an obstacle to be overcome.

I think the people always understood and now even most of Congress now understands that borders really are not obstacles — they are tools to promote America’s national interest.

And if that consensus has in fact percolated thoroughly into Congress, then we might see some more consistency in immigration legislation and less of the kind of constant changes and exceptions that Doris was referring to.

But really more importantly, I think the point here is that whatever the debate we have over immigration, and I have a point of view on this, we don’t have an instrument to implement our immigration policy, and it’s almost moot to argue whether we’re a nation of immigrants or not or anything else, because we have no tool to carry out a immigration policy.

GWEN IFILL: Let me bring Doris Meissner in on that point. Is the solution — are the solutions that are being proposed, merging, splitting, abolishing, are they just a matter of rearranging the deck chairs as it were, or can they actually get to the root of the structural problem, which Mark Krikorian just outlined?

DORIS MEISSNER: You need to do reform on a variety of fronts, but the restructuring is essential as an element or as a foundation. This is an agency now that is largest armed law enforcement agency in the federal government. This is an agency that has workload and adjudications that is similar to the Social Security Administration, to the Internal Revenue Service.

We’re in that tier, in that rank of workload. And so it has outgrown its management. It needs to have these focused professionals — the technology and expertise to manage those workloads without being constantly diverted by differing agendas, so establishing an institutional framework within which these workloads can be handled is critical and then of course you have new procedures; you have all kinds of other reform measures including training and better communication, but it’s time now and way past overdue for this new framework to be established.

GWEN IFILL: Okay, Angela Kelley, if it’s time now and it’s way past overdue and we have all known the problem has existed for years, why does it still exist?

ANGELA KELLEY: Well, I think there’s a number of things that need to happen. We need to have smart and safe borders and the Bush administration has taken great strides in doing that since Sept. 11, by partnering with our neighbors to the North and South, Mexico and Canada, we can be not only a stronger country, but a stronger continent, and that’s a smart way to stop terrorism while keeping us open as a nation of immigrants.

Secondly, we need to pass the border and visa security legislation that’s stalled in the Senate that will add layers of security for both the INS and the State Department so that they can keep the bad guys out while letting the people in to build this country the way they have done for generations.

Thirdly, we need to revamp the INS. There are good proposals out there. There’s the will and the way that it’s never existed before, and we need a strong person at the top with adequate funding, so we don’t starve services and they wither on the vine, and have a beefy border patrol that can’t keep out people who shouldn’t be coming in.

And finally, I think we need to follow the lead of president. The president just returned from Mexico and wisely said that it’s our neighbors to the South who are the key in terms of what we need in the future, a labor force, knowing who’s in this country, opening up legal channels for people to come in the future, so we can keep us a safe nation and a functioning nation.

It’s the genius of this country, as I’ve always said, that as a nation of immigrants we let people in. We need to continue to do that and then treat them well.

GWEN IFILL: With that we’re out of time for tonight. Thank you all for joining us.