The INS Needs a Complete Makeover

Reprinted from the Los Angeles Times, Friday, April 24, 1998

Immigration: Making it a new agency under the executive branch would increase accountability and effectiveness.

The INS, responding to widespread criticism of its performance, has proposed separating its service and enforcement functions but retaining both, the third significant such reform proposal in five years. A contending proposal, by the now defunct Commission on Immigration Reform, would dismantle the INS and distribute its functions to other departments. We believe that the INS proposal does not go far enough, while the commission's takes us in the wrong direction.

The politicization of immigration policy and frustration with INS performance have been growing for more than a decade. Both proposals react to that but fail to ask the most fundamental question: What is the system supposed to do, and how should it be organized to do it?

We have developed an alternative proposal that starts with goals and principles and develops structures to put them into practice. Immigration policy is top and center of this structure.

The INS' self-conception is primarily as enforcer of laws that it often plays a marginal role in formulating. At times, it is a victim of congressional micromanagement; at others, it becomes a political football between the administration and Congress. The executive branch generally reacts rather than initiates.

We propose creating an independent agency within the executive branch to direct the nation's immigration system. The new agency's core purposes would continue to be complex: facilitating and controlling entry, enforcing the law and delivering services, removing the deportable and naturalizing the qualified.

Various functions currently scattered among several federal departments--such as labor certification (Labor), visa, passport and most refugee and migration functions (State) and refugee resettlement (Health and Human Services)--would gradually be consolidated under a single roof. Consolidation would follow a simple rule. Unless the function (or part of it) falls within the central mission of the department in which it is located, it should move to the new agency.

An independent agency would be better prepared and situated to work with Congress to construct immigration policies that are consonant with other critical domestic and foreign policy priorities, from Social Security, welfare and human resources to education, economic competitiveness and international relations.

If congressional energy for fundamental reform falters, a second-best alternative would be to elevate the immigration function within the Justice Department through a new position of associate attorney general for immigration. This office would be charged with the formulation of immigration policy and the coordination of its execution.

Under both scenarios, service and enforcement functions would be separated within the agency. At the local level, separate immigrant service areas and enforcement sectors would be established. These steps would lead to greater accountability and better service for both immigrants and citizens.

The other options on the table are not up to the task. The INS plan would neither improve policy coherence nor ensure that program delivery is consistent with a policy's intent. Most important, it won't close the agency's credibility gap. The commission's proposal would hinder coherent policy even more, handing off to agencies with little institutional commitment to immigration the same problems of accountability, management and poor service that have dogged the INS.

No one lightly proposes creating a new agency. In 1970, President Nixon used reasoning similar to ours--that the importance of the environment required that a single independent agency oversee it--and created the Environmental Protection Agency.

Circumstances call for another exception. If the immigration function is as central to sound public policy across a variety of policy domains as we believe it is, if accountability and consistency in program delivery are as weak as many observers argue and if the service function is as much of a stepchild within the INS as even the agency's friends acknowledge, then creating a new agency and giving it the authority, resources and support it requires to do its job properly becomes a compelling choice.

Demetrios Papademetriou, T. Alexander Aleinikoff and Deborah Waller Meyers are with the International Migration Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace