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INS Official Leaving Amid Turmoil : Bureaucracy: The head of the agency’s Western region is taking an FPPC post because Washington tied his hands, co-workers say. He downplays that explanation.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The unexpected departure of Ben Davidian as head of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service’s Western region comes at a time of confusion, turmoil and a lack of direction in the agency, according to sources within the INS.

Several officials said privately that those conditions played a role in Davidian’s recent decision to leave the agency after 18 months to head the California Fair Political Practices Commission.

For the record:

12:00 AM, Feb. 15, 1991 For the Record
Los Angeles Times Friday February 15, 1991 Home Edition Part A Page 3 Column 1 Metro Desk 2 inches; 47 words Type of Material: Correction
INS official--The Times on Thursday incorrectly attributed to Immigration and Naturalization Services spokesman Verne Jervis a statement that a program to deport smugglers and repeat border crossers had been “forgotten” in the field. Actually, Jervis had said that the number of arrests was low, but that the program is continuing.

Staffers close to Davidian said the 39-year-old Sacramento attorney was stifled by superiors who gave him little leeway in running the Western region--covering California, Nevada, Arizona and Hawaii--yet offered little direction on how they wanted things run.

“He was hindered from doing anything,” said one INS staffer who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity. “He was on a very short leash.”

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While Davidian conceded that there has been some turmoil in the organization, he downplayed notions that his departure stemmed from conflicts within the immigration service.

“I wasn’t out looking for another job,” he said. “I was prepared to stay for a period of time. Yes, immigration is incredibly important, but so is political ethics.”

Davidian stressed that he took the post because of the challenge of running a department on his own.

But some INS officials said that frustrations with INS headquarters in Washington have been building and played a role in Davidian’s decision to leave.

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These staff members, who work with Davidian, said the problems stem from INS Commissioner Gene McNary, who set the bureaucracy’s nerves on edge with a plan to reorganize the agency after assuming his post 16 months ago.

McNary has moved to centralize operations in Washington, ending the relative autonomy of regional INS centers that allowed officials such as Davidian to interpret some regulations and deploy personnel in their own ways.

Officials in the Western region, with offices in Laguna Niguel, said that while Washington has removed authority from local officials, it has been slow in filling the vacuum with its own leadership.

“The entire agency under McNary has been in disarray with no priorities set and little or no policy,” another INS staffer said. “It would be laughable if we weren’t dealing with lives.”

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McNary would not comment on the criticism, but INS spokesman Verne Jervis in Washington conceded that McNary’s plan--the most comprehensive reorganization of the agency since it was decentralized in 1955--has brought a degree of turmoil to its upper echelons as officials worry about impending transfers, personnel changes and fading authority.

“It’s naturally created a lot of fear,” he said. “Reorganization is something that sends the blood rushing into your head.”

He said the reorganization is needed to restore stability and uniformity after years of leadership fragmented between the INS’s four regional headquarters.

Jervis said McNary inherited many of the problems now facing the INS, a sprawling 15,000-member agency charged with controlling immigration into the United States.

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Indeed, a draft audit by the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, released last November described the INS as plagued by a decade of waste, ineffectiveness and mismanagement.

The report detailed chronic problems such as missing documents, case backlogs and failure to conduct background checks on citizenship applicants.

“We have limited resources and our responsibilities grow every year,” Jervis said. “If you ain’t got the people, you ain’t got the people.”

But some staffers in the Western region said McNary’s move to centralize decision-making in Washington has only exacerbated the situation.

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One official described an incident a year ago when McNary, the former county executive for St. Louis County in Missouri, told subordinates that he wanted all illegal immigrant smugglers and repeat border-crossers detained for 30 days to deter others.

Surprised staffers informed McNary that there was barely enough detention space to hold them for more than a few hours, let alone 30 days.

Jervis said some smugglers and repeat offenders have been detained and deported, but he said McNary’s idea has been largely forgotten in the field.

Although McNary already has taken over some operations from the regional offices, such as budgeting and personnel, Jervis noted that the plan to centralize operations is still awaiting approval from the U.S. Justice Department, the federal Office of Management and Budget and Congress.

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In district offices and Border Patrol stations in the Western region, rank-and-file staffers are less critical of McNary. Instead, they talk of a general malaise caused by overwork, meager resources and increasing responsibilities.

The INS, they say, has lost its focus as it struggles to maintain order and purpose in the face of soaring illegal immigration, a flood of new regulations and increased drug smuggling along the border.

“At one point, we had the goal of apprehending illegal aliens, but that’s fallen apart now,” said one INS official. “We can’t even meet that one simple goal. What are the goals of the service? I don’t know what they are.”

Davidian said morale has been shaken by the increasing workload as well as the proposed reorganization of the agency, but he downplayed its significance.

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“I think whenever you have an attempt to change in a major way the way things are done in an organization, then people do get concerned about that, and I suppose a bit of frustration is in there,” he said. “But we will do what we are ordered to do. We salute and charge up the hill.”

Among the successes of the INS Western region last year, Davidian said, were apprehension of 625,000 illegal immigrants and the seizure of $400 million worth of drugs.

He spoke of his successes in improving the agency’s image after the flamboyant reign of former Western Regional Commissioner Harold Ezell, who infuriated many immigrant groups with his outspoken views on immigration.

Outside the agency, the assessment of the Western region during Davidian’s tenure is only lukewarm.

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Immigrant rights activists say he accomplished little and was low-key to the point of invisibility--a situation that Davidian attributed to his orders to “essentially reduce the profile” of the INS in the Western region.

Peter Schey, executive director of the Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law in Los Angeles, said immigrant rights groups now worry about Davidian’s replacement.

“I think it is an opportunity for the INS to appoint someone who has the familiarity with immigrant and refugee issues,” Schey said. “But we could also end up with yet another commissioner who is a technocrat with no experience and again, not provide any leadership.”


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