On March 11, exactly six months after two jetliners crashed into the World Trade Center, notification of student visa approval for Mohammed Atta and Marwan Al-Shehhi arrived at Huffman Aviation International, a flight school in Venice, Fla., where the two had taken lessons.
For Atta and Shehhi, the point was moot. They had been at the controls of the two planes that destroyed the World Trade Center in the deadliest terrorism attack in U.S. history.
But the arrival of the notifications set off another wave of criticism against what has become the government’s favorite whipping-boy agency — the Immigration and Naturalization Service.
“The INS is worse than useless,” Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., told a congressional hearing in mid-March. “It expends funds but produces nothing.”
“I think that this incident last week simply demonstrates that the INS is in a free fall,” added Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz.
If the United States is a country that loves to hate its government, then the INS is our current heartthrob. The INS has earned a miserable reputation rooted in its failure to keep undocumented foreigners out of the country and to cope with a backlog of millions of residency and citizenship applications. According to the Los Angeles Times, there are an estimated 8 million illegal immigrants in the country. Delays in citizenship applications can be measured in years.
At least three of the Sept. 11 hijackers remained in the United States after their visas had expired. Others entered the country on student visas but, unknown to the INS, never attended classes. But the status of the WTC attackers is far from the only bad publicity the agency has picked up lately.
At Miami airport, a database containing the names of suspected terrorists and known criminals goes down at least once a week, according to INS inspector Stanley Mungaray. The INS continues to process people anyway. “We don’t know who we’re admitting, if the person is a criminal or on the (terrorist) watch list,” said Mungaray.
In 2000 and 2001, at least 20 allegations of sexual abuse against women detainees were brought against 15 officers at the Krome Service Processing Center, a detention center near Miami, Fla., according to Wendy Young, director of government relations for the New York-based Women’s Commission for Refugee Women and Children. One Krome guard was fired after pleading down a rape charge to a misdemeanor.
Convicted serial killer Raphael Resendez-Ramirez’s name was entered into the INS Border Patrol database seven times. But not once was it revealed to authorities that Resendez-Ramirez was wanted by the FBI for murder. Each time he was released.
In August, a federal appeals court revoked an INS policy that restricted the public and media from deportation hearings of suspected supporters of terrorism. Metro Times took part in the lawsuit that opened the hearings of Ann Arbor Muslim cleric Rabih Haddad.
President Bush has proposed abolishing the INS in favor of two agencies, one to enforce immigration laws and one to deal with immigrants and residency applications. Bush would roll the agency — which has 40,000 employees and a budget exceeding $6.4 billion — into the Border and Transportation Security Division of the proposed department. Whether that would solve the problems — INS Commissioner James Ziglar blames “obsolete technology and overly bureaucratic and illogical processes” — remains to be seen.
Not all of the blame can be laid at the feet of the agency. The INS has had to stretch its resources to deal with pet projects ordered up in haste by the Justice Department and the White House. And during the past decade Congress has made several changes to immigration laws that have placed unreasonable demands on the INS’ already overburdened resources.
Blame who you like — the overwhelming evidence suggests the INS is dysfunctional.
“We have increased the budget for INS over the last eight years 250 percent, and it’s less functional than it was eight years ago,” Rep. Elton Gallegly, R.-Calif., a member of the House Immigration and Claims Subcommittee, complained.
And perhaps there is no point in throwing good money after bad.
“The truth is the INS is beyond reform. It needs to be rebuilt from scratch,” Flake said.
Check out the rest of Tom Schram's "Expatriot games" series
Out of options
INS errors, technicalities may result in family's ouster.
Laos' forgotten "killing fields"
Genocide is far from over in Southeast Asia
"I'm going to miss America"
Young woman's future in the U.S. is in doubt due to the INS's failure to process a political asylum application in a timely manner.
Tom Schram is co-chair of the National Writers Union of Southeast Michigan. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org