On the Border
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
"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."
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
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.
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
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
About Us • Links • Why Should You Care About Immigration? • House Bill 12 • The exclusion categories are reformed and updated • On the Border