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Spotlight on the INS

U.S. Atty. Gen. Dick Thornburgh has decided to replace the controversial Alan C. Nelson as commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service. But just finding a replacement for Nelson will not solve all the problems the Bush Administration inherits in INS.

The Times’ Washington Bureau reported this week that Nelson, a California attorney, will be replaced in spite of his campaign to retain the job to which he was appointed by Ronald Reagan. Nelson is an old friend of former U.S. Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese III, and his close ties with Meese helped Nelson through several scrapes during his seven years at INS. But a recent audit by the General Accounting Office, which found evidence of mismanagement at INS, has given Thornburgh the ammunition he needs to oust Nelson.

In fairness, the INS commissioner’s job has proven to be a difficult task for everyone who has held it since the 1970s, when the first of a series of GAO and congressional studies found management problems in the agency. These problems resulted from the fact that Congress had not paid much attention to INS since World War II, leaving the agency chronically understaffed and underfunded. Now, it is notorious as the most inefficient agency in the federal bureaucracy.

Congress has been trying to make up for its neglect of INS, most recently voting to hire more Border Patrol agents under the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. But this belated attention has had only minimal effect on the INS, because it comes at a time when political turmoil and population growth in many parts of the world have created a surge of immigration to this nation, which is overwhelming INS all over again.

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Some see this wave of new immigrants as a threat, but we prefer to see it as a challenge to American ingenuity. How can these newcomers, whether permanent or temporary, be dealt with humanely? When Congress passed the immigration reform act of 1986, it took a step in the right direction, but it forget to reform the agency charged with carrying out the new law.

It’s not that there were no proposals to reform INS. Several GAO studies have suggested the government could more efficiently guard the nation’s frontiers if the Border Patrol were part of a single border-management agency that would also include other federal agencies, like the Customs Service and Coast Guard, that currently share the burden and do not always coordinate their activities well.

And demographers predict that, because of declining natural birth rates in this country, half of the nation’s population growth in the next century will occur as the result of new immigration. That should have prodded Congress to upgrade INS’ naturalization functions, perhaps putting them into a new bureau of immigration, so that the government could better help newcomers adapt to American society. INS is doing that, somewhat haphazardly, under the amnesty program included in the 1986 immigration law. But if immigration is going to have the impact on U.S. society demographers think it will have, a more formal system must be created to deal with its effects.

These long-range issues must not be overlooked by the Bush Administration as it seeks a new INS commissioner. The right kind of leader for that beleaguered agency will not just deal with the problems it has today, but prepare INS for the profound challenges of the future.

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