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INS Restructures Strategy, Focuses on Alien-Smuggling

By William Branigin

In what it calls a “major shift” in strategy, the Immigration and Naturalization Service is moving away from its traditional raids on job sites to round up illegal immigrants, instead emphasizing operations against foreign criminals, alien-smuggling rings and document fraud.

The new “interior enforcement strategy,” outlined in an internal INS document, affords a measure of relief to the estimated 5.5 million illegal immigrants living in the United States and the thousands of businesses that employ them.

But it is generating intense criticism within the INS and among advocates of a tougher stand on illegal immigration. They say the new policy undermines the INS’s commitment to removing illegal aliens, essentially ignoring them as long as they do not commit a crime that brings them to the agency’s attention.

“There is resistance... because, basically, if you get through the border, you’re home free,” a senior INS field manager said. “Everybody recognizes that, and the aliens know that by now.” He added, “We basically have ceased work-site enforcement. ... We’re extremely frustrated. Morale is low.”

The strategy shift underscores the nation’s ambivalence about illegal immigration. While most Americans oppose the idea of sneaking across the border or overstaying a visa, there also is widespread recognition that illegal immigrants typically work hard, often at jobs Americans shun.

The change also reflects the political reality that has doomed previous crackdowns on illegal employment. According to INS insiders, neither the Democrats nor the Republicans have demonstrated the political will to seriously reduce the illegal work force, in large part because key constituencies oppose such efforts. On the Democratic side, interior enforcement directed against undocumented workers tends to alienate lawyers, ethnic lobbies, civil rights groups and, increasingly, unions trying to organize the newcomers. For the Republicans, work-site raids often pose problems because they arouse bitter complaints from business and agricultural interests.

The strategy document, which has been distributed to INS field offices but has not been publicly released, says the agency’s goal in interior enforcement is to “reduce the size and annual growth of the illegal resident population.” The INS has used new powers under a 1996 immigration law to step up deportations in recent years, removing a record 169,000-plus people in fiscal 1998. But the increased expulsions are not keeping pace with the estimated 275,000 illegal immigrants who permanently settle in the United States every year, much less putting a dent in the core illegal population.

The top priority is to identify and remove “criminal aliens,” many of whom “are released before their legal status is ascertained or before the INS can be called” to pick them up. The agency estimates some 221,000 foreign-born criminals are in federal, state or local jails -- two-thirds of them illegal immigrants. As many as 142,000 others are on parole or probation but are subject to removal under the immigration law. An additional 161,000 are “abscondees” who disappeared after receiving deportation orders.

The next interior enforcement priority is dismantling networks that smuggle illegal aliens.