The United States has always had a reputation for being an open society. Citizens are not required to carry identification, and visitors have historically found it easy to enter the country. Since 11 September, however, the nation's immigration policies have come under scrutiny, and the U.S. Congress is now in the process of overhauling the country's immigration agency.
Washington, 29 April 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The U.S. House of Representatives voted by an overwhelming margin last week (25 April) to dismantle the federal Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) and replace it with two new agencies.
If the legislation becomes law in its present form, one of the new agencies would be in charge of providing services to foreigners entering the United States either as visitors or to pursue American citizenship. The other agency would police the country's borders and enforce immigration laws internally.
The U.S. Senate is preparing a similar bill for passage. The Senate Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing on it on 2 May.
The INS has long had a reputation for inefficiency at best, and endangering the country's security at worst. The agency is slow to act, rarely catches up with visitors who have overstayed their visas and frequently admits ineligible foreigners. Congressional figures show the INS has about 5 million applications pending, and that more than 300,000 foreign visitors who have been ordered deported are still in the country.
Congress had tried to reform the agency for the past three decades but did not have widespread political support to move forward. That is, until 11 September, when 19 men hijacked four passenger jets and attacked targets in New York and Washington. One plane crashed in rural Pennsylvania. All 19 hijackers were foreign-born men living in the United States on temporary visas.
The INS's shortcomings came under further scrutiny when it was learned that the agency had approved visa extensions for two of the hijackers. The extensions were granted before September, but because of bureaucracy at the INS, the notices were not mailed until last month, six months after the two suicide hijackers had died in the attacks.
As a result, members of Congress who want to reform the INS have all the support they need to move forward. The support is so great that last week's House vote on reform of the agency was a lopsided 405 to nine. There is also broad support for reform in the Senate.
After the House vote, U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft, whose department includes the INS and will include the two new agencies that are likely to replace it, said restructuring the INS is a simple matter of streamlining a badly managed government bureaucracy.
"It is time to separate fully our service to legal immigrants, who help build America, from our enforcement against illegal aliens who violate the laws of America."
James Lindsay, an immigration specialist, says there is no question that the INS has been poorly run. He notes there have been many complaints about the agency using obsolete computers that cannot keep up with the agency's enormous caseload.
But Lindsay -- a foreign policy analyst at the Brookings Institution, an independent Washington policy center -- says equipment alone is not to blame. He told RFE/RL that responsibility for the INS's inefficiency rests with the people who manage the agency.
"Unless the quality of the people who are there changes, then simply reorganizing it may make relatively little difference."
Because of changes brought about by the events of September, Lindsay says foreigners will find it more difficult to enter the U.S. and to stay in the country beyond the terms originally agreed upon.
"Our immigration system is being 'securitized' [subject to stricter security], to some extent, and it will be a little more fearsome for those who are seeking to come and remain here."
But Lindsay stresses that stricter security is not merely a function of the proposed reorganization of the INS. He also attributes it to the USA Patriot Act, a package of antiterrorism laws passed by Congress and signed by U.S. President George W. Bush within weeks of the September attacks. Some of these measures are being challenged in the courts as unreasonable restrictions of American civil liberties.
Angela Kelley is deputy director of the National Immigration Forum, an advocacy group for immigrants based in Washington. She told RFE/RL that the INS reform legislation that passed the House last week and a corresponding bill in the Senate appear -- at least on the surface -- not to threaten people wishing to come to the United States for honorable reasons.
"We could end up with an actual highly functioning agency that can keep out the 'bad guys' more effectively than it's currently been able to, and let in people who want to come in and build the American dream. It's possible. But there's a lot that's not known right now, quite frankly, about where and what kind of restructuring we're going to end up with."
Kelley says her organization is concerned, however, about the latitude that will be given to the attorney general and other senior officials who will oversee the two agencies that will likely replace the INS.
According to Kelley, these officials will have the authority to prevent foreigners from entering the country, even on innocent business, and to relentlessly track those who are admitted. She says the question is whether they will use this broad authority wisely.
Kelley says her organization and other immigration advocacy groups will be watching the progress of the legislation now in Congress and will challenge it in the courts if they believe the laws put unreasonable restrictions on foreign visitors.