RX for the INS: A Service in Desperate Need of Reform

By Mark Krikorian on June 22, 2001

National Review, June 22, 2001

The INS is considering raising its fees again, and the mass-immigration crowd is crying foul.

The Associated Press recently reported that the Service is looking at new fee increases to help cover rising costs and cope with growing backlogs. The fee for green-card applications might go up to $330, citizenship to $345. This comes on the heels of a new program to charge $1,000 for expedited processing of many temporary work visas.

The usual suspects have been outraged at these developments: newspaper editorial pages, the immigration lawyers, the "Catholic Legal Immigration Network." And they're right - the INS isn't a 7-11 where you buy a green card along with your beef jerky and doughnuts.

But what the high-immigration Left doesn't understand is that this situation is unavoidable under our current approach to immigration. They want to keep admitting a million people a year (or more), but also want efficient service and respectful treatment for all these newcomers.

This is a circle that can't be squared. The INS, after decades of neglect and mockery, simply can't modernize in the midst of ever-increasing responsibilities. The fee hikes are simply an attempt at triage by an agency told to hurry into the 21st century while being overwhelmed with applications whose processing is required to be self-funded by fees.

One solution might be simply to throw more money at the INS. This is exactly what the Bush administration has proposed. Its FY 2002 budget request for the agency contains a 10 percent increase to more than $5.5 billion, and envisions spending $500 million over five years to bring waiting times down to no more than six months for all immigration applications and "to make customer satisfaction a priority."

This additional funding is desperately needed. The General Accounting Office reported in May that the receipt of new applications (green cards, citizenship, temporary workers, etc.) has increased 50 percent over the past six years and the backlog of unresolved applications has quadrupled to nearly four million. The number of citizenship applications filed in the 1990s was about 6.9 million, triple the level of the 1980s; "temporary" admissions nearly doubled in the 1990s to more than 30 million; and the number of (very labor-intensive) applications for asylum in the 1990s was nearly one million, more than double the level of the 1980s.

Some government agencies might be able to handle such a crush of new work, especially when provided with increased resources. But the INS is not just any agency. The name of INS headquarters in Washington says it all - Memorials remind us of Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln, the airport is named after Reagan, the performing arts center after Kennedy, and the INS building is named after - Chester A. Arthur.

The INS's status as the Rodney Dangerfield of federal agencies isn't limited to symbolism. The abysmally out-of-date and fragmented state of the agency's computer systems stems from a decision in the 1970s not to automate the files so as to preserve low-level clerical jobs. A real government agency would not have been allowed to paint itself into such a corner. As then-Commissioner Doris Meissner told Government Executive magazine in a 1999 interview, "You don't overcome a history like that in four to five years."

No solution to this mess will be easy. Hiking fees to increase available funds is a short-term bureaucratic response. The Bush administration has more ambitious plans to reorganize the agency altogether, splitting the service and enforcement functions into two separate chains of command within the agency. The administration presumably chose its nominee for INS commissioner on the basis of his ability to manage such an overhaul; James Ziglar, currently Sergeant at Arms and Doorkeeper of the Senate, has no experience with immigration but has a long career in finance, including as former managing director of Paine Webber's municipal securities group. (He is also a GOP contributor who sang in the same church choir as Trent Lott during high school.)

But more money, management savvy, and institutional reorganization won't be enough. The only way to give the INS the breathing room it needs to modernize is to reduce its workload. Some demands upon the service can't be reduced - tourists will, and should, keep coming; legal immigrants will, and should, keep applying for citizenship. But the admission of new immigrants and "temporary" workers is an area where the INS's load can be lightened dramatically.

Some will respond with the flat-earth perspective that immigration is an undiluted good, we all benefit, entrepreneurship, family values, ethnic restaurants, nation-of-immigrants, diversity-is-our-strength, who-will-clean-my-pool? - all issues extensively examined elsewhere (such as at the Center for Immigration Studies website).

But whatever the costs and benefits of immigration, no one can argue with a straight face that we are doing a good job of processing newcomers into our country. Cutting legal immigration back - to the spouses and minor children of American citizens, plus a handful of genuine Einsteins and authentic refugees - and ratcheting down the admission of "temporary" workers would provide the essential breathing room needed if administration plans for INS reorganization and improvements in service are to succeed. Any such legislation to cut back immigration levels could be written to expire after, say, seven years, to reassure critics that this is not a back-door way to permanently reduce immigration.

On the other hand, after such a pause, the American people might conclude that reducing immigration doesn't seem to have made things worse, and may even have made them better. Perhaps that is what the proponents of mass immigration fear the most.

Mark Krikorian is executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies.