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On the Border

Despite a deluge of resources, the Immigration and Naturalization Service's management systems don't deliver.

If money and attention were the ingredients of effective management, INS would be a model agency. In a decade of government downsizing, the Immigration and Naturalization Service has defied all odds. While other agencies saw their budgets slashed, INS' more than doubled to $3.8 billion in 1998. Instead of cutting employees, agency rolls have increased by thousands every year since 1993.

"Many people have this image we are flush," says George Bohlinger, INS' executive associate commissioner for management. "We are not flush." While INS has seen its budget balloon, most of the money has gone to pay the salaries of new personnel or been earmarked for mission-critical information technology systems, not for administrative or management systems, which are badly in need of reform, he says. Countless reviews of INS bear this out and have shown communication across the agency is poor, technology is used inefficiently, and money and personnel are mismanaged.

"As much as we've grown, we haven't grown proportionally in administrative areas as we should have," says INS Commissioner Doris Meissner. "We don't have the infrastructure to support the growth."

The agency's mission is twofold--to serve immigrants seeking benefits, such as work permits or citizenship, and to keep out or deport those entering the country illegally. INS executes its dual mission through three regional offices, 33 district offices and 21 Border Patrol sectors. But the service and enforcement mandates spawn conflicting cultures that often compete for attention and resources. As a consequence, neither mandate is fulfilled. The agency has a record backlog of nearly 2 million applications for citizenship, with the wait as long as two years or more before processing is completed. At the same time, estimates of illegal immigrants now living and working in the United States are at historic levels, ranging from 5 million to 7 million, with hundreds more entering the country illegally every day.

Criticism of INS comes from across the ideological spectrum. Republicans point to the huge number of illegal aliens in the United States as evidence of the agency's inability or unwillingness to stop illegal immigration. Liberals and pro-immigration groups attribute the record backlog of naturalization applications to a law enforcement mentality that treats immigrants harshly and unfairly.

"We are very much a creature of a very unsettled view in the country about immigration," says Meissner. "There are very different views at any one time depending on the constituency." The political pressure is evident in the agency's approach to work site inspections. Surprise inspections of work sites are seen as critical to controlling illegal immigration and thwarting employers exploiting cheap labor. But when INS inspections result in the arrest and deportation of illegal workers, the agency's actions often spark protests from immigrant interest groups and investigations of agents' conduct, usually prompted by lawmakers under pressure from those interest groups.

To better manage the political fallout from inspections, INS headquarters last year issued revised procedures for inspections. Among the changes, the 33 district directors who manage field operations must now receive approval from their regional offices before conducting inspections. And if a regional director deems a particular inspection would be sensitive in terms of its "media impact or community impact," INS headquarters must approve the request, says Baltimore district spokesman John Shallman. "It forces us to plan these inspections a little further in advance, and I'm not sure that's a bad thing," Shallman says. But the new procedures also add a layer of bureaucracy and slow the inspection process at a time when the agency is under fire from critics who say it doesn't do enough to deter illegal immigration. One INS agent says the new policy is tantamount to telling a city police department it needs approval from the governor's office before making arrests.

Weak Management.

While political pressure clearly affects the agency's priorities, it does not account for the range and depth of management problems, including poor financial reporting, incorrect records management, information technology programs that are over budget and behind schedule, poor personnel management, and inadequate capital planning. Often, shortcomings in one management area have directly hindered another.

For example, the INS' largest capital assets are its detention centers, which are badly maintained and severely overcrowded. The facilities are so inadequate that INS annually spends millions leasing detention space in county and local jails. But the General Accounting Office found that if the agency had better managed its program for deporting criminal immigrants, it could have avoided nearly $80 million in detention costs in 1995 and 1997. INS is legally required to initiate removal proceedings for felons while they are incarcerated and, to the extent possible, complete deportation proceedings before they are released from prison. But GAO found that the high attrition rate of immigration agents and inadequate data management rendered the program ineffective, contributing to a serious capital management problem.

In 1991, GAO issued an extensive report detailing severe management problems across the agency. Among other things, GAO found INS:

Lacked clear priorities,
Lacked management control over regional commissioners,
Had poor internal communications and outdated policies,
Did not use workload data to allocate resources--which contributed to the high backlog of applications, and
Had unreliable financial information and thus inadequate budget monitoring.

Since Doris Meissner was named commissioner in 1993, the agency has made progress in addressing management weaknesses, GAO found in a July 1997 follow-up report. INS has developed a strategic plan, implemented a priorities management process, taken steps to use workload information to allocate resources, and reorganized top management to provide more oversight of field operations. Still, much remains to be done.

GAO found that recent weaknesses in key INS programs, especially the naturalization and criminal immigrant deportation programs, can be attributed to long-standing problems with the agency's organizational structure, budgeting and financial management, and administrative communications.

Margaret McCormick, president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, says improving internal communications is essential to improving INS operations. "It amazes us when we disseminate information we receive from INS headquarters to our members, who in turn share it with local INS offices, who then tell us that they are seeing it for the first time. It appears to be standard operating procedure that local offices do not adequately disseminate policy to their staff, or that headquarters and local offices do not share communication."

Management weakness has been particularly evident in the naturalization program. In 1995, the agency was overwhelmed by a surge in applications for citizenship, which had doubled from 1994 to more than 1 million. To deal with the surge, INS managers, with help from Vice President Al Gore's National Performance Review, streamlined the process, which they dubbed Citizenship USA. More than a million new Americans were naturalized before INS managers, prodded by Republican lawmakers, discovered the new process lacked many safeguards. The program became a political and management nightmare when Republicans charged INS had violated immigration laws to naturalize potential new Democratic voters before the November 1996 presidential election. Independent auditors discovered that of the 1.1 million immigrants naturalized in the 13 months preceding the election, 11,600 had arrest records that should have disqualified them from becoming citizens, 38,000 had broken the rules during the application process, and more than 90 percent of the applications contained processing errors.

Headquarters managers forced INS district directors to implement Citizenship USA despite their concerns about maintaining standards, says Baltimore District Director Benedict Ferro. It proved to be a huge miscalculation. The resulting investigations nearly brought the naturalization program to a standstill, causing the application backlog to mushroom to nearly 2 million.

In a February 1998 study, consulting firm Coopers & Lybrand found: "Many managers feel stuck in the middle, lacking the appropriate tools and support from headquarters to react to the problems facing the naturalization program. They feel unduly criticized about circumstances they cannot control and frustrated with what they perceive to be reactive and uninformed responses from headquarters."

Personnel Progress.

Fifty-three percent of INS field personnel have been at the agency less than five years. Such growth provides both an opportunity to break down what many view as an unhealthy status quo, and also an enormous training and management challenge.

Most of the resources poured into INS in the last four years have been programmed to staunch the flow of illegal immigrants coming across the southwest border from Mexico. The agency has hired about 1,000 new Border Patrol agents every year since 1995.

The influx of personnel and equipment has had measurable results in areas like San Diego, where apprehensions of border crossers are at a 17-year low. Nonetheless, the illegal traffic has shifted to other regions,making it difficult to measure progress. Despite the massive infusion of resources, tens of thousands more illegal immigrants enter the country every year than are deported.

But absorbing new personnel at the rate Congress has required has not been easy. The process for screening and training new Border Patrol agents is one of the most rigorous among federal law enforcement programs, requiring trainees to become proficient in Spanish and immigration law, as well as police skills. Through better candidate screening, managers have cut the agent attrition rate within the first year of hiring to about 16 percent, considerably lower than the 30 percent in 1996. Still, problems are apparent. Last September, four immigrant shootings by Border Patrol agents in the San Diego sector prompted charges that novice agents weren't being properly supervised.

"It's very difficult to grow at the rate we're growing and maintain quality," says Michael Nicley, deputy chief of the Border Patrol. "There's always pressure to get those people on board. It's taken extraordinary effort to ensure that quality is sustained."

Technology Critical.

While INS has tried to whittle down the backlog of naturalization applications, applications for other benefits, such as work permits, have grown 60 percent. Contributing to the backlog is the fact that INS examiners rely on paper case files--25 million located in 80 offices around the country. "We have had this huge bow wave of applications that got away from us and we're trying to work ourselves out of it, but people are not very pleased with us. Our districts are working as hard as they can with what was essentially a manual process," says INS Deputy Commissioner Mary Ann Wyrsch. Files are sent and retrieved by mail. INS last year received congressional approval to centralize files at a single location, which would cut file retrieval time from weeks or months to a matter of days. Eventually, INS plans to store files electronically.

The data system "is totally and completely antiquated," Meissner says, and stems from a political decision 25 years ago to not automate the file system in an effort to preserve entry-level personnel positions. "You don't overcome a history like that in four to five years."

In the meantime, INS is in the midst of several technology initiatives designed to streamline and automate the benefits workload and facilitate entry and exit at ports. These initiatives provide the agency with a great opportunity to improve management. But it may soon be lost. In a 1997 report to Congress, Justice Department Inspector General Michael Bromwich said: "The investment is in excess of $2 billion--an unprecedented expenditure of funds for automation technology in the INS--and it will touch all parts of INS' operations. Our recent audit disclosed material weaknesses in the management of the initiative. Among other things, we found that several major systems were behind schedule and that the INS lacks definitive performance measures for tracking critical project milestones."

Even without such performance measures, there is general recognition that several programs are behind schedule and over budget. The IG found that budgets for eight of 15 automation contracts were likely to be spent before the contracts ended.

In addition, "We continue to be concerned about the integrity of the data that will be contained in the new systems and with the training and abilities of INS employees who will be responsible for maintaining these systems and recording the transactions that constitute the systems' databases," the IG reported.

Weaknesses in information technology management have also contributed to the agency's financial management problems. Resources are not aligned with mission priorities and a complex system of funding sources, including congressional appropriations, user fees, fines and trust fund accounts, makes it all but impossible to base management decisions on resource allocation. INS is awaiting congressional approval to consolidate and thereby simplify its budget structure.

According to IG audits, the agency's subsidiary accounting systems often contain inaccurate and incomplete information and there is no connection between the subsidiary accounting systems and the general ledger. Each INS center processes and records transactions differently because INS has no comprehensive accounting policies and procedures to ensure accounting consistency. In addition, the IG reported last May that $92 million of capitalized property was not supported by INS' current property management system. The system did not provide the necessary information for financial reporting purposes, users did not receive appropriate cost data, and data were not reconciled to the general ledger and adjusted as necessary, the report said.

While INS officials are installing a new financial management system they believe will solve these problems, GAO officials say INS neglected to define its business processes before selecting its financial management system, a requirement under the 1996 Clinger-Cohen IT management law. When GAO raised concerns about this, INS officials said the immediate need for a new financial management system outweighed the benefits of reengineering first. They said they would analyze the agency's business processes during implementation of the new system.

Despite these financial management problems, INS is ahead of many federal agencies in its use of activity-based costing to justify user fees. Given the limitations of the agency's current financial management systems, this is no small accomplishment, and bodes well for improved financial management as the new, improved system takes root across the agency.

Uncertain Future.

Last year, the Clinton administration proposed a plan to radically restructure INS by dividing operations into three stovepipe components--enforcement, benefits and support services. The three components would operate independently, but cooperatively, and replace the current structure of three regional offices and 33 district offices responsible for both enforcement and benefit operations.

District offices can no longer handle INS' burgeoning mission on either the enforcement side or the service side, says Meissner. "Where we have succeeded best is where we have specialized." For example, she says, INS' asylum process improved dramatically after the responsibility for granting asylum was moved from the district offices in 1993 to an independent organization staffed with specially trained officers. Productivity increased fourfold between 1993 and 1997, fraud and abuse dropped, and a backlog of 369,000 cases in 1995 was reduced to 99,000 by March 1998.

The proposed restructuring would also create defined career paths for service and enforcement personnel, Meissner says.

Robert Gardner, hired last fall to head the restructuring effort, which is awaiting approval from Congress, says site surveys and focus groups with more than 900 INS personnel show overwhelmingly that employees want to see the agency restructured. "There are different ideas about what that should be, but there is a general consensus on wanting change."

Not all INS employees have embraced the administration's plan. District directors, who may play smaller roles in the new organization, are strongly opposed.

Even if Congress approves the restructuring, it will likely be years before some of the management problems are resolved. "Most, if not all, of these problems originated years and years ago, and are regrettably the product of substantial neglect over time by INS top management, by Justice Department top management and, frankly, by the Congress, as well," Bromwich said in testimony about his report.

Meissner agrees, and adds: "We're a mainline agency. We've got to perform that way."

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