May 10, 2002

New, Two-Headed INS Must Face U.S. Need For Immigrants

By Behrouz Saba

The old Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) suffered from a split personality, helping immigrants with services while intimidating them through law enforcement. In April the House voted overwhelmingly to abolish the old INS and split it into two good-cop, bad-cop bureaus. But unless Americans face the contradictions at the heart of our immigration policy — we want immigrants for their cheap labor, but blame them for problems that arise from inviting a vast underclass to an affluent society — the new entities won’t work any better.

For decades, the “solution” to maintaining a cheap and docile labor pool was to keep the INS understaffed, under-funded and demoralized, allowing scores of mainly Latin American immigrants to slip across the southern border. They lived here in a legal limbo, worked at any job for low wages and kept quiet, lest they attract INS attention and all the misery that could bring.

The agency, overwhelmed by the flow of immigrant laborers in the 1980s, could no longer keep track of even those who entered the country legally but had overstayed their tourist and student visas. An estimated 7 million undocumented immigrants from every part of the world resided in the country, in every conceivable socioeconomic class. Most Latino working families, however, were rooted in densely populated, crime-ridden communities, straining scant social services and raising their American-born children as second-class citizens.

The Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 offered amnesty to nearly all of the undocumented, holding employers liable for hiring immigrants with no work authorization. Yet the INS remained just as beleaguered as ever, without the operational and financial means to protect the borders or to enforce the employer sanction provisions of the new act.

The amnesty rescued 7 million persons from uncertainty, but millions more have poured in to take their place. During the economic downturn of the early 1990s, particularly in California, anti-immigrant sentiments reached a crescendo. Then-Governor Pete Wilson cynically capitalized on public anger to fuel his own — finally unmet — presidential ambitions. The Clinton administration responded as well, by signing into law the draconian Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996. Meant to combat criminal immigrant smuggling and document fraud, it included measures that gutted legal recourse and entitlement for all immigrants.

Any genuine immigration reform today should include the review and revocation of those bad measures.

The 1990s also saw an exponential rise in the INS budget, which has now reached $6.2 billion for 37,000 employees. The increased resources haven’t resulted in better performance by an agency long resigned to a culture of incompetence.

In the late summer of 2001, as the pendulum was swinging toward the good-cop extreme, President Bush conferred with President Vicente Fox of Mexico and prepared to offer amnesty to 3 million of the undocumented. Days later, Americans woke up to the horrific images of Sept. 11, and saw that unprotected borders and badly enforced immigration laws could invite more than just cheap labor.

Many immigrant advocates consider the new INS legislation a positive first step. Yet no bureaucracy, no matter how well funded and efficient, can legally pursue the cases of up to 5 million undocumented immigrants. Another amnesty will be necessary, but this time with the understanding that the undocumented will not be allowed to reach such massive numbers again.

While the Border Patrol, now a part of the INS, needs greater autonomy and resources to prevent illegal entries, it will never successfully accomplish its mission of keeping criminals and terrorists out of the country as long it spends most of its time chasing undocumented workers. There should be a quota system for immigrant labor, with a specific visa category, and admission procedures that would start at U.S. consulates abroad. Those admitted should have clear guidelines allowing them to work seasonally or become year-around workers eligible for permanent status after a period of time.

Lack of clarity and uneven enforcement have marred the lives of millions of immigrants and frustrated thousands of federal employees on the job for decades. It is all the more unfortunate that it took a national tragedy for voters and lawmakers alike to look at how immigration should be handled. U.S. immigration policy must provide not only good policing, but also equal protection under the law.

Saba ( has written extensively on American and Middle Eastern political, social and cultural issues. A native of Iran, he is a graduate of USC, with a Ph.D. in communication.

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