Is this a side effect of terrorism ?
INS down to its last days
three new bureaus are ready to assume agency's functions
WAITING: A long line forms around the Immigration and Naturalization Service building on Miami's Biscayne Boulevard. Critics say that such lines are a symbol of the U.S. agency's shortcomings. At midnight Friday, the INS will cease to exist. JOSE A. IGLESIAS/HERALD STAFF
Arnaldo Muñoz, a Cuban refugee, showed up at the imposing, fortress- like building on Biscayne Boulevard before the sun rose. Maybe, he thought, arriving so early would make the wait shorter. It didn't. It was four hours before Muñoz made it inside the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service building to apply to renew his work permit.
Luis González also arrived early, at 5 a.m., to apply for a replacement for a lost green card. ''The only way to get in early into the INS building . . . without waiting all day is to get to the line very early and wait,'' said González, one of hundreds of people who showed up well before INS doors were unlocked at 6:30 a.m.
Long lines, not just in Miami but nationwide, are synonymous with the INS, a visible symbol of its shortcomings, critics say. Apart from perhaps the IRS, no other government agency is as disliked, mistrusted and feared.
At midnight Friday, after 69 years of putting out a welcome mat as well as barring the doors to America, the INS will cease to exist. The agency will be divided into three bureaus -- absorbed into the mammoth Department of Homeland Security, which was created after the Sept. 11 attacks.
Federal officials promise more than a mere reshuffling. They promise that the new bureaus not only will improve national security but will be more efficient and user-friendly.
''This is not a superficial name change,'' said Bill Strassberger, an INS spokesman in Washington who will join Homeland Security. ``This is being done to improve the coordination of different agencies and improve the security of the nation.''
Migrants, advocates and attorneys who deal with the INS are willing to extend the benefit of the doubt but, not surprisingly, say the proof will come in deeds, not words.
''My fear is that the issue of helping Haitians and other immigrants achieve status will be put on the back burner, superseded by national security,'' said Marleine Bastien, executive director of Haitian Women of Miami Inc.
Homeland Security officials would not provide details about possible changes in immigration practices. But other U.S. government officials and immigration experts said they could include:
• Reducing or eliminating lines outside immigration offices by allowing immigrants to file applications electronically.
• Decreasing the chances of fraud by adding so-called biometrics to immigration documents, including digitized images of an immigrant's face or fingerprint that could be read by electronic machines.
• Improving screening of migrants by using sophisticated computer systems for detailed background checks that would include an applicant's credit, employment and family history.
• Installing high-tech devices and systems to reduce backlogs at airports and border crossings. One website maintained by a company in McLean, Va., shows an international traveler cleared in after a machine scans his eye.
• Consolidating immigration and customs forces, so that arriving travelers would have to clear only a single inspector. Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge told reporters recently that the goal is to create ``one unified, coordinated force at the border.''
• Improving the tracking of foreign students through an electronic database system now being put in place that will alert federal officials when a foreign student drops out or switches study courses from, for example, English to flight training.
Folding the INS and its 36,000 employees into the new department marks the biggest overhaul of immigration services since June 10, 1933, when the INS was created by combining the Bureau of Immigration and the Bureau of Naturalization, then in the Department of Labor. In 1940, the INS moved into the Department of Justice -- ostensibly to improve security as war engulfed the world.
Throughout its history, the INS has had to balance seemingly contradictory roles of being both a service provider and a law enforcement agency. It has been criticized for doing neither very well.
In South Florida, the INS has been accused of unfairly treating Haitians when it suddenly changed policy in December 2001 and stopped releasing asylum seekers who had shown a credible fear of persecution if returned home. INS officials said they feared that releasing migrants while their cases were pending could trigger a mass exodus from Haiti.
The INS also has been denounced for its enforcement of a law passed by Congress in 1996 requiring mandatory detention of foreign nationals convicted of certain crimes. Since then, tens of thousands of people have been arrested and deported, many after serving sentences for crimes committed long before the law was adopted.
The INS also has sparked furor for its aggressive campaign to stem the flow of illegal crossings along the U.S.-Mexican border. Advocates say it has led to many deaths as migrants seek more isolated places to enter the United States.
But the INS came under its most intense scrutiny after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, even though the agency did not issue the visas to the 19 hijackers who carried out the assaults. Still, the agency was embarrassed when it mailed student pilot visas for two of the hijackers -- six months after the attacks.
To more thoroughly screen visa applicants overseas, the Homeland Security Department will assume control of setting guidelines for issuing visas.
INS critics who have lambasted the agency for porous borders that allow in too many illegal immigrants say they hope that dividing the agency's responsibilities among three new bureaus will better filter out scofflaws.
''If I had to peer into my crystal ball, I'd say this might lead to some tightening of immigration control,'' said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies.
``Whether it'll make some long-lasting difference will depend on the message sent by the White House about whether immigration control is really central to homeland security.''
One measure that would better enable workers at airports and border crossings to stop suspicious foreign travelers from entering the United States involves installing much more detailed databases.
Currently, an arriving traveler carrying a valid visa is usually cleared by an INS inspector if the person's name does not trigger
a ''hit'' on the inspector's computer, indicating that the traveler is a wanted criminal or terrorist.
Under the new, more high-tech measure called data mining, the inspector would get a ''hit'' on every name, yielding a detailed
biography, including economic, educational, business and political profiles.
''Why should the process for the issuance of a visa be so much less rigorous than for a Visa credit card?'' Lee S. Strickland, a visiting professor at the University of Maryland, wrote in a recent article in the Bulletin of the American Society for Information Science and Technology.
But some advocates fear that an emphasis on security will prompt undocumented foreign nationals to burrow further underground.
''There's a real fear that INS work will be less service-oriented and more enforcement-driven than ever,'' said Cheryl Little, executive director of the Miami-based Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center.
Immigrants are anxious -- but some hope the change may lead to improvement.
Lidia Urbina, a Nicaraguan, said she has been waiting for an INS work permit since 2001. Urbina says the INS did not process the document because she initially filed the wrong form. But Urbina said it took the INS a year to advise her of the problem.
''If I get my permit under the new agency, that'll be an improvement,'' Urbina said.
Despite the imminent demise of the INS, homeland security officials said, nothing will change overnight -- INS documents from asylum applications to green cards to naturalization papers will remain valid.
The new agency plans to launch a publicity campaign to assure foreign nationals that they don't have to renew documents.
Strassberger said the expectation is that documents will be changed as they expire.
Ultimately, Ridge said, the goal is to ``improve and protect immigration practices.'' http://www.miami.com/mld/miamiherald/5248358.htm