INS, R.I.P.: Into dustbin of history

By Mark Krikorian on February 28, 2003

National Review Online, February 28, 2003

At midnight Friday, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) turns into a pumpkin. Saturday morning means a whole new arrangement for administering the immigration law, ending years of debate over the issue.

But whether things will actually improve is not clear.

The federal government's immigration functions have bounced around quite a bit over the last century. The Bureau of Immigration was transferred from the Treasury Department to the new Department of Commerce and Labor in 1903, and went with the Labor Department when it split off in 1913. The Immigration and Naturalization Service, as such, was created in 1933; in 1940, with war approaching, it was moved from Labor to the Justice Department, for reasons of what we would now call homeland security.

This weekend things change yet again. Not only will immigration responsibilities be moved to the new Department of Homeland Security, but they will be broken up and reshuffled. In place of the INS there will now be three bureaus that deal with immigration within Tom Ridge's department - one for border enforcement, one for interior enforcement, and one for citizenship and immigration services.

The focus on security and enforcement is encouraging. After September 11, immigration clearly came to be seen as a security issue again, as it had in World Wars I and II, and this weekend's change institutionalizes that new reality. The border agency will include the inspectors from the Customs Service and INS, plus the Border Patrol, and will be headed by Robert C. Bonner, currently Customs Commissioner. The interior enforcement agency will be headed by Michael Garcia, a former federal prosecutor who is acting head of the INS.

Neither of these men seems likely to be intimidated by the business and ethnic interests that have so often succeeded in preventing meaningful immigration enforcement. But the real test will come when a major enforcement action creates a storm of protest and outraged congressmen demand it be discontinued - will the White House stand by its men and tell the complainers to lump it? Or will it do as so many have done in the past, and sacrifice law enforcement to special interests?

The Clinton administration was notorious in this regard. Take Operation Vanguard, intended as a kinder, gentler means of enforcing the ban on hiring illegal aliens. This initiative, launched in late 1998, focused on all the meat-packing plants in Nebraska (instead of raiding one and letting the others benefit from the disruption of their competitor). Rather than breaking in the doors, the INS simply subpoenaed the companies' personnel records, which they took back to the office and verified. The INS then asked to interview those employees who appeared to be unauthorized - and the illegals ran off. The procedure was remarkably successful, and was meant to be repeated every two or three months until the plants were weaned from their dependence on illegal labor.

But it was never repeated. Gov. Mike Johanns organized a task force to oppose the operation; the meat packers and the ranchers hired former Gov. Ben Nelson to lobby on their behalf; and, in Washington, Sen. Chuck Hagel made it his mission in life to pressure the Justice Department to stop. They succeeded, the operation was ended, and the senior INS official who had thought it up in the first place was forced into early retirement.

While the White House's choices for immigration enforcement suggest this sorry spectacle may not be repeated in this administration, its choice for the immigration-services bureau is less encouraging. Eduardo Aguirre, currently chief operating officer of the Export-Import Bank of the U.S., was a longtime Houston bank executive who came to this country from Cuba as a child. While I sincerely hope he succeeds in this position, the appointment of someone with no immigration or law-enforcement experience suggests that the White House still doesn't understand that immigration services (green cards, citizenship, employment authorization, etc.) is just as much of a security issue as border enforcement. I've written about this in more detail before, but, in a nutshell, the agency adjudicating immigration applications must serve as a filter to keep bad guys from achieving progressively higher status - from illegal alien to short-term visitor to long-term visitor to permanent resident to naturalized citizen - since each change in status grants them increased ability to hurt us. The leadership of such an important office is not like an ambassadorship to the Bahamas, which can harmlessly be given away to political supporters.

Perhaps the greatest advantage to the reorganization of the INS is that the debate over this issue, which has been going on for more than a decade, can finally come to an end. Now that the organizational questions are out of the way, there is no longer any excuse for avoiding the real problems of immigration policy: too many immigrants, not enough money, and, most importantly, not enough political will to enforce the law.

Mark Krikorian is executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies and a Visiting Fellow at the Nixon Center.