All Charged Up but Where to Go? : Immigration Boss Has Good Ideas, Impossible Job

Gene McNary is a veteran--and by most accounts capable--bureaucrat who was handed one of themost thankless jobs in government: Commissioner of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service.

McNary, who was chief executive for St. Louis County, Mo., before being named to head INS by President Bush, visited Southern California last week on the first inspection tour of what is arguably the most important front under his command. In just a couple of days, he got a full sampling of the daunting challenges INS faces in trying to maintain a semblance of control over the federal government's immigration policies--such as they are.

He saw U.S. Border Patrol agents hoping to turn back the thousands of foreigners, not all of them Mexicans, who try to slip across the border each night. He heard all about the angry residents of San Diego who are so upset about this migration that they've taken to holding weekly demonstrations along the border, shining auto headlights toward the south in hopes of exposing people trying to cross illegally.

In Los Angeles he saw long lines of undocumented aliens waiting at INS offices, sometimes overnight, hoping to file last-minute applications for legalization under the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act. And he heard from Latino and Asian-American activists who are upset at the mounting evidence that IRCA has exacerbated discrimination against people who look or sound "foreign." Taking it all in, McNary--or any other first-time observer--could be forgiven for asking "What reform?"

Indeed, it looks at times as if nothing has changed despite the good intentions that moved Congress to enact IRCA four years ago. Some good did come out of the new law, like legalization, which let millions of people emerge from the nether world that illegal immigrants inhabit. But it's also painfully obvious that the reform act failed to stem illegal immigration. And that really shouldn't surprise anybody. The social, political and economic factors that impel ambitious foreigners to try and get to this land of opportunity are just too strong for any law to control. So what's to be done?

McNary's answer is reasonable, as far as it goes. An experienced government administrator, he proposes to reorganize INS so it does its many important jobs better. It is particularly encouraging that he's leaning toward more efficient border control, putting his agency's officers and resources right at the border rather than trying to spread them over outposts as far-flung as San Luis Obispo and the Salinas Valley. That will help limit illegal border crossings, and the attendant violence and crime, a bit more.

But we can't shake the feeling that until the federal government seeks bigger answers to the immigration question--such as promoting more economic development in the Third World countries that would-be immigrants come from--McNary's proposed reorganization of INS could be a classic case of rearranging the deck chairs on a sinking ship.

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