Remembering John F. Shaw: 'A Really Good Man with an Impossible Job' at the INS

By Jerry Kammer on June 6, 2019

John F. Shaw, Sr., who as an official at the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) confronted the contradictions between the mandates of the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) of 1986 and the political pressures mounted by activists and employers of illegal immigrants, died last week at 85.

"He was a really good man with an impossible job," said Gregory Bednarz, a longtime INS executive and close associate of Shaw. Bednarz will speak at Shaw's funeral service on Saturday in Laurel, Md.

Shaw grew up in Baltimore, where he attended Catholic schools and played baseball against future Hall of Famer Al Kaline. He studied for the priesthood, but was not ordained, earned a law degree, became an FBI agent, and began work at the INS after a brush with FBI director J. Edgar Hoover. As the Washington Post reported in 1988, "In a highly publicized case in 1970, agent John F. Shaw resigned rather than accept a transfer to Butte after he had criticized the FBI under Hoover's leadership."

During his tenure at the INS, including as assistant commissioner for investigations, Shaw had much of the responsibility for managing immigration enforcement in the interior of the United States. He battled constantly for the financial resources needed to fund the effort to curtail the illegal immigration that expanded enormously in the aftermath of the 1986 legislation. As fraudulently documented immigrants found it easy to evade the law's worksite identification provisions, illegal immigration spread rapidly across the country, growing throughout the 1990s at an average annual rate of 500,000.

"We were given an impossible task," Jack Shaw said in a 2017 interview with the Center for Immigration Studies. "We did the best we could, but we couldn't really do anything more than present an illusion of enforcement. The resources just weren't there."

California drew the largest numbers of newcomers, both legal and illegal. But even there the INS Investigations division, which had the job of enforcing employer sanctions (the ban on hiring illegal immigrants, included in the 1986 law), remained a 98-pound weakling. In 1995 the Los Angeles Times took the measure of the mismatch, reporting that in Southern California "only 30 to 35 INS agents monitor almost half a million employers in a vast area stretching from San Clemente to San Luis Obispo, and east to the Nevada and Arizona borders. ... 'Sanctions have not been supported with resources, conceded Jack Shaw...'If we're not visible, no one takes the law seriously.'"

At the end of 1998, Shaw retired from the INS and talked at a congressional hearing of his frustration with INS Commissioner Doris Meissner, who boasted of developing a "seamless" web of enforcement against illegal immigration. He also criticized Meissner and her Executive Assistant Commissioner for Policy and Planning, Robert Bach. Shaw made a strong, if modulated, denunciation of their leadership, particularly regarding enforcement of IRCA and other aspects of immigration law.

But the hearing was almost entirely ignored by the Washington press. Perhaps reporters were turned off by the hearing's drab title: "Designations of Temporary Protected Status and Fraud in Prior Amnesty Programs".

In his oral testimony, Shaw summarized years of frustrated attempts to interest Meissner in his ideas regarding interior enforcement. He poured out his frustration at what he felt was the marginalization of the investigations division, which he had directed from 1984 to 1995: "I would hope that the Congress ... shares my expectation, and yes, my sense of frustration in waiting for INS senior management to propose, seek funding for, and enthusiastically endorse and implement a cohesive, fully integrated interior enforcement strategy," he said. He concluded with a cry of the heart, calling for INS senior management to recognize "the professional competence, fidelity and dedication of the long-overlooked coterie of special agents of the INS."

The power of Shaw's attack on Meissner and Bach was blunted because he confined his strongest criticism to the written statement he submitted for the record. There he said, "Immigration advocacy groups exert a strong interest in areas of INS policy formulation ... and they are not prone to endorse strong enforcement actions away from the land borders to deny aliens immigration benefits." Referring to Bach only by his title, Shaw said that at a strategy planning meeting, Bach "noted that there are operational sensitivities to take into account and no strong public consensus for INS enforcement activities in the interior of the United States." Clearly referring to Meissner and Bach, he said, "INS top management remains reticent and lukewarm" about enforcement.

Shaw also blamed Congress for slighting interior enforcement while lavishing money on the Border Patrol. In his 2017 interview with CIS, he elaborated on that subject, which has constrained interior enforcement for decades, as Congress seeks to demonstrate its commitment to border security without antagonizing politically powerful employers who seek access to a large supply of low-wage workers capable of gaming a worksite identification system that Congress has failed to repair with mandatory, fraud-resistant measures.

This article is drawn from a Center for Immigration Studies report, "What Happened to Worksite Enforcement?", which will be the final part of a forthcoming CIS book.