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Immigration Chief Nelson Is Expected to Be Replaced

Times Staff Writers

Alan C. Nelson, who has presided over the government’s massive program to give legal status to illegal aliens, will be replaced as commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, despite his concerted effort to hold on to the post, Administration sources said Monday.

The disclosure of his expected departure comes in the wake of a recent Justice Department audit that was highly critical of management practices in the agency.

Sources said that Atty. Gen. Dick Thornburgh, whose department oversees the INS, is eager to bring “new blood” to the service.

A Justice Department spokesman said that President Bush “has indicated he would like to see major turnover of people in the Administration to reflect his views and priorities.

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“The attorney general has been engaged in the process of interviewing people for major positions,” said the spokesman, David Runkel. “No determination has been made with regard to INS.”

Other sources said, however, that although the search is under way for a new commissioner, no decision on a replacement is expected this month.

Nelson has been the target of strong criticism for the agency’s plan to dig a four-mile-long ditch on the Mexico-California border near San Diego to deter smuggling, and for the agency’s response to the influx of Central American refugees.

Nelson, who did not return a reporter’s call Monday, was incensed over an internal Justice Department audit last week that charged that his agency was riddled with mismanagement. The audit cited such problems as missing documents, massive backlogs of cases and failure to conduct background checks on many applicants for citizenship.

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When asked about the plans to replace Nelson, Greg Leo, his chief spokesman, said: “We’re not in a position to confirm or deny that. To the best of my knowledge, he has not been told that. I just talked to him.”

One INS official who favors Nelson’s retention said that the audit by the Justice Department’s management division was designed to undermine his efforts to stay in the job. Since Bush’s election, Nelson has been lobbying transition officials to keep him in the position.

“It’s a hatchet job,” the official said of the audit.

Series of Audits

However, Justice Department officials said that Thornburgh’s management practice relies on such audits to evaluate the performance of agencies responsible to him. They noted that he made frequent use of such audits when he was governor of Pennsylvania and that audits of the INS and Marshals Service are only the first in a series of such assessments.

Several immigrant rights activists said they were not surprised that Nelson would be ushered out. “There are enough people out there who want him out to start a club,” said Mario Moreno of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

Nelson’s handling of the agency has been controversial for several years. A former San Francisco attorney who took over the job in 1982, he oversaw the implementation of the landmark 1986 immigration reform law and was sharply criticized by alien advocates for allegedly being slow in informing the public about the measure’s provisions.

Nelson, whose friendship with former Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese III dated back to their days in California, weathered that storm.

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However, acrimony flared anew with disclosure in January of INS plans to construct the $2-million border ditch. Many critics likened it to the Berlin Wall, complaining that it reflected insensitivity to the concerns of immigrants who cross the border seeking a better life in the United States. The government of Mexico has told the Administration of its opposition to the ditch.

Nelson and Thornburgh also have had differences since Thornburgh assumed the top Justice Department post late in the Ronald Reagan Administration, several immigration experts said. “There’s no love lost” between them, one said.

Charles Kamasaki of the National Council of La Raza said that Nelson “started with a disadvantage. He not only was a holdover; he was particularly identified with Meese, and Thornburgh and Bush don’t have any particular affinity for Meese.”

Has Ally in Simpson

Nevertheless, Nelson has had a strong ally in Sen. Alan K. Simpson (R-Wyo.), a principal author of the 1986 immigration law.

A spokesman for Simpson said that the senator “has indicated to everybody that he can that he supports Alan. But his support is no guarantee of a job in this Administration.”

The spokesman recounted a conversation in which Simpson expressed his support and Bush replied: “OK, Al, thanks; it’s important for me to know what you think.”

Although several people have been mentioned as possible successors to Nelson, no front-runner is now apparent, Administration sources said.

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