November 27, 2002

Homeland Security: Taking a Failed Immigration System and Making it Immensely Worse

Washington, DC - This past week, the Senate passed legislation creating the Department of Homeland Security, a sweeping bill that swallows whole the Immigration and Naturalization Service. The bill, passed by the House and Senate, places immigration enforcement functions within the massive sub-department of Border and Transportation Security, along with Customs, the Coast Guard, and other transportation-related functions. The Undersecretary of Border and Transportation Security reports directly to the Secretary of Homeland Security.

In contrast, all immigration service functions, such as family visa applications, asylum requests and naturalization petitions, will comprise a completely separate division, headed by a director reporting to a Deputy Secretary.

“The President has repeatedly promised to reduce immigration processing timeframes to six months,” said Angela Kelley, Deputy Director of the National Immigration Forum. “All eyes will be on the Administration and the new department to see if the backlogs and delays for which the INS was infamous are made better or worse. We fear that the way immigration services are structured in the Department of Homeland Security could be a recipe for disaster where the cure is worse than the disease.”

The Forum, a Washington-based pro-immigration organization, has advocated reform of the ailing INS for years. However, in the Forum’s opinion, the structure adopted by the Bush Administration is at odds with the principles of reform we have espoused.

“We have always advocated for a separation of the components of the INS, but have also always stressed the need for close coordination between the two with a strong leader with the clout to balance and coordinate the functions,” Kelley said. “This bill fails to put a strong executive in charge of the nation’s immigration functions. It separates further the enforcement and services sides of the immigration system, threatening to make serious fiascos, long waits, red-tape nightmares, and security lapses more likely, not less.”

Kelley sited the mailing of visa approval notices to the Florida flight school of two dead hijackers as a symptom of the lack of meaningful coordination between the components that manage the enforcement of security precautions with the side that processes applications from foreign visitors, students, and immigrants.

“Separating these functions further and making their decision-making functions less coordinated will increase the likelihood of the types of outlandish screw-ups the INS has been known for,” Kelley said.

Approaches like the Enhanced Border Security and Visa Entry Reform Act passed earlier in the year will do more to enhance security and promote the accurate application of intelligence than moving offices and changing chains of command.

“Intelligence and information matter more than the shape of the bureaucracy,” Kelley said. “But in the meantime, America’s immigrants will suffer.”

The reorganization of INS into the new homeland security agency could mean longer delays for families to be reunited through legal immigration, employers to be connected with needed employees, and for people with legitimate asylum claims to be granted the freedom to live in our country.

Kelley said her organization anticipates that the next Congress will be closely monitoring the structural problems of the immigration functions of the Department of Homeland Security in the coming months and years.

She added, “The debate regarding structure and which boxes to move where on the organizational chart is over for now. The focus now turns to results.”

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