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September 1999, Volume 6, Number 9

Congress: Reorganize INS?

Congress was in recess in August, but debate on the reorganization of INS continued. The Immigration Reorganization and Improvement Act of 1999 (H.R. 2528) continued to attract congressional sponsors in August 1999, despite the concerns of many immigrant advocates and the Clinton administration that breaking up the INS into separate enforcement and service agencies could further weaken the provision of services. Testimony on the bill can be found at:

The INS has a large and growing backlog of cases. There are 4.4 million applications for some type of immigration benefit, including 1.8 million naturalization applications. Applicants for immigration services must pay the cost of providing them. Thus, for example, the INS charges foreigners who wish to naturalize a fee of $225. Congress has sometimes ordered INS to take funds from its service account and use them for enforcement activities--over the past two years, $518 million was taken from the service budget to pay for detention, asylum, refugee processing and other expenses.

In the Senate, the bipartisan INS Reform and Border Security Act of 1999, S 1563, would upgrade the INS within the Department of Justice, as INS Commissioner Meissner urges, establishing an Immigration Affairs Agency directed by an Associate Attorney General for Immigration Affairs who would direct: (1) the Bureau of Immigration Services and Adjudications; (2) the Bureau of Immigration Enforcement and Border Affairs; and (3) a support service center. One feature of this bill is a provision calling for appropriations to fund immigrant services, which could reduce the rate of increase in INS service fees.

A similar House bill, the Immigration Restructuring and Accountability Act of 1999, HR 2680, would create a National Immigration Bureau, headed by a director who would report to the attorney general. The Bureau would have four functions, including services (Office of Immigration Adjudications); enforcement, (Office of Immigration Enforcement); detention (Office of Pre-Hearing Services); and support (Office of Administration). HR 2680 includes the restoration of Section 245(i), the provision of immigration law that permits foreigners illegally in the US when their immigrant visas become available to pay a fine and adjust status in the US rather than returning to their country of origin to obtain an immigrant visa.

Central Americans. The Clinton administration endorsed the Central American and Haitian Adjustment Act of 1999, H.R. 2722, which would amend the Nicaraguan Adjustment and Central American Relief Act of 1997 to permit an estimated 550,000 unauthorized Guatemalans, Salvadorans, Hondurans and Haitians continuously in the US since December 1, 1995 to become legal immigrants; under NACARA, only Cubans and Nicaraguans were offered an easy path to legal immigrant status.

The bill is an effort to expand legalization programs for Central Americans, many of whom arrived in the 1980s and were denied asylum or did not apply because the INS was rejecting most applications from persons whose governments the US supported in civil wars. Many Central Americans nonetheless remained in the US, and US courts frequently held that US policies toward the Central Americans were unlawful. NACARA was an effort to wipe the slate clean, but critics, including the Clinton administration, argued that it offered different levels of benefits depending on US policy toward the host government, making it easier for Cubans and Nicaraguans to obtain US immigrant status than for Guatemalans and Salvadorans.

President Clinton proposed a $70-million English Language and Civics Education Initiative for FY2000, with the funds going to states and community-based organizations to provide English language and civics and history instruction for immigrants. Clinton noted that many immigrants want to learn English, but there are often long waiting lists for English as a Second Language classes--enrollment in ESL classes was 1.8 million in 1997.

Immigrant advocates have launched a "Fix 96" campaign to revise provisions of the three major immigration laws enacted in 1996 that they believe hurt immigrants and their US relatives; legalization programs for Central Americans are among the fixes that they would like Congress to approve.

The Center for Immigration Studies released a report that concludes that "there is nothing as permanent as a temporary refugee." (Krikorian, Mark. 1999. Here to Stay: There's Nothing as Permanent as a Temporary Refugee. />
Visa Waiver. The Visa Waiver Pilot Program (VWPP), begun in 1998, allows nationals from 26 countries to enter the US for up to 90 days without a visa. In August, Portugal, Singapore and Uruguay were added to the VWPP, joining Andorra, Argentina, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Brunei, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Monaco, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, San Marino, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom.

The U.S. Justice Department's Office of Inspector General (OIG) released a report in July, "The Potential for Fraud and INS's Efforts to Reduce the Risks of the Visa Waiver Pilot Program," that contends that passports of VWPP countries are stolen and used to gain admission to the US. For more information:

GAO. 1999. Immigration and Naturalization Service: Overview of Management and Program Challenges. T-GGD-99-148. July 29.