Cite as "AILA InfoNet Doc. No. 98061153 (posted Jun. 11, 1998)"
STATEMENT OF MARGARET H. MCCORMICK, PRESIDENT
AMERICAN IMMIGRATION LAWYERS ASSOCIATION
THE U.S. IMMIGRATION AND NATURALIZATION SERVICE
AND ITS PROVISION OF SERVICES
UNITED STATES SENATE
June 11, 1998
Mr. Chairman, Distinguished Members of the Subcommittee:
My name is Peggy McCormick, and I am pleased to be here today to testify on the ability of the Immigration and Naturalization Service to provide services to the thousands of deserving immigrants, visitors, and intending citizens each year. I will summarize AILA's views briefly and ask that my remarks be submitted in their entirety for the record.
I am honored to be here today in my capacity as President of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, a bar association of over 5,000 attorneys who represent the entire spectrum of applicants for immigration services. We appreciate this opportunity to present AILA's views concerning the current framework of the Service and its ability to provide immigration services to its clients. We are perhaps the one group of people who can give you a sense of the magnitude of the challenges facing the INS today as it struggles to accommodate growing numbers of people seeking to come to or remain in this country. We see the entire pictureCat the local, regional and national levels; for employers seeking to obtain needed workers, for families attempting to reunite with loved ones, for asylum seekers fleeing persecution, and others who must deal with the agency.
I am not here today to make open season on the INS. The agency makes a serious effort to meet what can only be called a schizophrenic mission with the limited resources that are available to it, particularly in its service functions. There are many dedicated individuals, from Commissioner Meissner down to the lowest clerks, who work to meet the agency's goal of providing services efficiently and fairly. However, this is at best a limited effectiveness, and continues to grow more and more strained, as more people enter the system to obtain immigrant benefits. Furthermore, recent legislative changes, inconsistent mandates in service and enforcement, and growing delays in Congressional reprogramming needed funds have strained the Service=s abilities and test its infrastructure.
While the agency has struggled to fulfill its mandate in response to the increasing challenges, its ability to do so within the status quo must be reexamined. The quick fixes the agency has been able to implement are insufficient given the increasing burdens. In fact, such fixes only serve to emphasize the need to thoughtfully reexamine the agency's role and structure. AILA thus welcomes this hearing and commends this Subcommittee=s measured and balanced approach to the issue.
Our association has been examining the INS=s dual and schizophrenic role of service and enforcement. We recognized as early as 1989 that these functions were incompatible and needed greater separation. This past year, in light of the Commission on Immigration Reform=s recommendation to this body that the functions be dismantled and scattered throughout the government, we reexamined the issue in depth. We disagreed with the Commission and are recommending a new and independent agency, with Cabinet-level access that would combine all immigration functions now at the INS and at other agencies. We also recommend that the agency functions not be scattered, but be separated into service and enforcement components under one roof, each with a clear mission and goals.
AILA=s examination of the separation of functions has been based on the view that the Service and -- to the extent necessary -- Congress must recognize that the service functions of the agency need to be given the same authority and resources that the enforcement functions have been given. The unequal distribution of agency resources is, we believe, the root of the problem of the current organization. That the provision of services appears as an afterthought to the agency is reflected in many aspects of the agency=s functions: from its management structure to its career development paths, from its allocation of resources to the substantive policies that emphasize enforcement protections. Any changes undertaken by the agency or by its Congressional authorizers must first remedy this essential inequity in order to accomplish anything more than the status quo.
AILA believes strongly that certain goals (explained further in the attachment to this testimony) must be incorporated in any restructuring of the agency from its current framework:
The agency needs to incorporate a customer service orientation, defining customer service goals, rewarding employees who meet those goals and not rewarding those who do not.
The services bureaucracy of the agency must be implement those customer service goals.
Finally, it needs to include improved communication at all levels so that policies will be consistently applied.
II. AILA=s Recommendations for Meeting the Basic Goal of Service
The INS must become a customer service organization.
1. Customer service goals must be incorporated into agency functions.
We believe that the first step the agency needs to undertake to successfully provide services is to become a customer service organization. To that end, the Service must incorporate customer service principles and goals into its functions at every level -- from the attitude of its intake personnel to the accountability of its top management. A customer service orientation must infiltrate the agency=s service providers.
The primary goal of the INS=s service delivery should be that the product of the service delivery-- the adjudication of a request for an immigration-related benefit -- be timely. This is the only way for a service organization to meets its primary function effectively. Reasonable production time goals must be incorporated and adhered to. If you are a large Midwestern university and need to hire a foreign professor to teach a class, for example, and the commencement date of that class comes and goes, but the professor cannot come into this country because the INS has not been able to adjudicate his request to enter and work for you, your need can no longer be met, and there is no point in the INS providing the adjudication.
The very mentality of the Service, at least of the side that provides immigration benefits, should be one of service. Many times the INS is conflicted within itself not because of the law, but because of its own actions in interpreting that law, that require it to take an enforcement stance. This activity causes the agency to needlessly engage in additional enforcement activity that could be avoided. The necessity of obtaining advance parole for applicants seeking adjustment who need to leave and reenter the United States during the application process is but one example of a situation where the INS injects enforcement requirements on those who reasonably seek benefits, creating more work for the agency where it should not exist, and unfairly and permanently penalizing those unaware of its necessity.
Resources -- human resources as well as monetary -- must be adequate.
In order to be able to adjudicate applications in a timely fashion, the agency requires an adequate allocation of resources, from human resources to infrastructure. This is an area where improvement cannot come too soon. Naturalization is only the most recent and extreme example of the difficulty the agency is experiencing under its current structure and resource allocation to adequately process the mounting stacks of applications. In this regard, the agency is in crisis mode at all times. When it responds to pressure to reduce backlogs in one area of its adjudications, the most recent being naturalization, it must do so at the expense of its other adjudications responsibilities. Indeed, the agency=s current focus on naturalization has led to increasing backlogs in other areas, such as adjustments of status to permanent residence, employment authorizations, and nonimmigrant petitions.
In addition, the agency=s most precious resource B its human element B must be provided in sufficient quantity and quality to perform its activities properly. Human resources must be maintained at a professional level, retaining sufficient flexibility to be responsive to need. There must be sufficient autonomy and training at the adjudications level to deploy personnel where needed, whether to meet geographic shifts in benefits applications or shifts in subject matter. In other words, there should be sufficient flexibility among INS personnel to meet increased demand from city to city, or from type of application filed.
In turn, in order for the financial resources to be adequate to its needs, at minimum, the fees that are collected on immigration service delivery should be spent on that function. The funds that are collected as user fees, which are meant for adjudicating petitions, should be retained by the service providers to perform that function. They should not be made available for enforcement functions, but should be devoted to that activity to which those seeking the services entrust them and for which they have paid. Currently, the examinations fees that are collected are used not only to finance application adjudications but also for other activities, such as removal proceedings, and even consulting contracts on reworking the agency=s activities, that would be more appropriately funded by Congress. This practice serves to drive down the importance of the services side of the agency and accelerates the call for fee increases. Ending this sharing of fees would also go a long way toward keeping fees reasonable and affordable by the public who must pay for them.
Procedures need to be standardized.
No less important is the need to standardize the procedures used in adjudicating benefits. INS makes heroic efforts under its current strained structure to ensure that its adjudications efforts are uniform and consistent. In particular, the adjudication of applications by the four Regional Service Centers generally apply consistent guidelines and standard procedures that are reasonable and correspond to the relevant regulations.
Unfortunately, in some respects the INS misses opportunities to further this goal in any but the simplest of cases. For example, the initial adjudication of an application for adjustment of status, as an application for permanent residence status filed in the U.S. is called, is conducted at one of the Service=s Service Centers. The centers have consistent standard operating procedures to adjudicate applications such as this, to determine the applicant=s eligibility. These adjudications are undertaken by officers whose primary role is the determination of eligibility for benefits, and who are well versed in the law and its implementive criteria.
However, under current Service practice, in many cases a personal interview, which takes place at a local district office, is also required. In the context of the interview, the application is typically readjudicated to redetermine eligibility. Only this time, an adjudications officer who does not necessarily know or choose to apply those same standards undertakes review of the application. That adjudications officer, moreover, has spent much of his or her career in enforcement situations, questioning the credibility of applicants. This result in duplicative and sometimes inconsistent processing at the local or regional level. This duplication of effort needlessly spends additional resources and human capital (both the INS=s and the applicant=s) in reprocessing the same information.
In addition, production and responsiveness standards must be institutionalized. Formulation of policy goals must be accompanied by reasonable expectations that they will be incorporated at all levels. Customer service goals and policies must be incorporated into all activities, from information intake to final adjudication.
The bureaucratic structure must implement customer service orientation both in goals and in accountability.
The service branch of an immigration service agency offers the first opportunity to advance a customer service orientation. Applicants deserve to experience a customer service atmosphere as they wade through the application process, whether it be for an initial immigrant or nonimmigrant petition, an asylum application, or naturalization. All personnel should be made to understand and act according to the principle that applicants are entitled to respect as they seek the service for which they have paid.
Unfortunately, this is not the present case in many aspects of INS processing. To be fair, this is not the fault of those involved, but a by-product of an agency in which the enforcement culture predominates and where the benefits providers are considered to have a lesser stature than their enforcement colleagues do. Enforcement personnel are given precedence at every level, from preferred training and advancement to greater autonomy in decision making. Any changes, even the most minor, must remedy the inequity of this preference for the enforcement function.
Elevating the stature of providing services must necessarily include elevating the personnel who undertake this function. We believe that any recommendations to restructure the agency must include specific proposals to enhance the human resources capital. This enhancement must include attention to career development, pay equity, and increased training opportunities.
To this end, the INS should devote additional attention to developing a professional corps of adjudications officers for all immigration benefits, in the same way they already have done in the asylum context and have achieved in the Regional Service Centers. These professional corps of officers in the agency already demonstrate that they can maintain enforcement priorities in determinations requiring them (such as questions of admissibility and eligibility) but do not put gate keeping ahead of the primary mission of providing a benefit to those who qualify. A separate career path, equally rewarding as the enforcement career within the agency, would enhance the function of service and wold help in attracting individuals committed to government service in immigration.
In conjunction with a competent and trained workforce, service providers must have sufficient independence and authority to develop benefits policy and carry out its implementation. Service providers must also have the ability to oversee their own day-to-day processes, making policy on the little things that enable them to function. INS has already begun to incorporate such systems and should be encouraged to expand them to adjudicate all benefits. In 1994, for example, the agency established an asylum branch dedicated to timely and thoughtful adjudication by fully trained professionals of asylum applications. The Regional Service Centers have gradually taken on more adjudication of high-volume, low-fraud applications and petitions. In both cases, there is a clear line of authority and accountability, with established corps of workers who are fully trained in specialties. The top management is given wide discretion but is fully cognizant of policy implemented by the national office. In fact, the Regional Service Centers have significant independent authority but communicate constantly with the national office, which provides policy and budgetary guidance. These systems work, by and large, because they have autonomy and corresponding accountability within the system.
With the tools to develop consistent and competent adjudications, however, must come accountability. Implementation of customer service standards must be accompanied by a system where failure to meet those goals is penalized, and success in meeting them is rewarded. While this may sound overly simplistic, remember that the INS currently has no such system. Congress and the agency appear to focus much less on how many immigrants a district office employee helps; it's the ones that he or she puts into proceedings, or deports, that are remembered and rewarded.
Communication Improvements Are also Necessary to Provide Better and More Consistent Service
As attorneys, we often experience instances (whether individually or collectively) where the INS has failed to communicate adequately some policy that affects us, whether internally or externally. As an organization, we have worked over the last several years to improve communication with the INS at local and national levels. The agency, particularly under the tenure of Commissioner Meissner, has been a willing partner in much of this effort. It therefore 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 HQ and local offices do not share communication. One of the easiest improvements INS could undertake right now is to standardize its information dissemination, so that national policies are always shared at the local level, giving all those charged with implementing it equal access. In fact, the national structure has tried to ensure this standardization. One reason this appears to fail now is the current reporting structure at the local level; INS district directors can choose how they disseminate information at the local level. Another is the antiquated infrastructure for information delivery at the agency; offices cannot even share needed file information on applicants. Prompt and effective communication, however, is essential to marked improvement and should be a hallmark of any changes the agency seeks to make.
Better communication with and to the public is also needed. I=m thankful to say that the INS generally acknowledges this at the national level, and in many places at the local level. We have seen increased outreach from the agency to all interested parties as it struggles with its increasing workload. Such outreach and interaction should, however, be standard operating practice.
Attorneys and community service agencies that help applicants with a range of areas requiring INS involvement, from extending tourist visas to obtaining naturalization, are well aware of the problems faced by the agency. When the agency engages in a dialogue with us, all too often it views much of what we or any other outside agency has to offer with suspicion. But in helping ourselves we are trying to make the process work. We have been frustrated in the past when the INS announces an initiative without prior consultation, or consults with outsiders and then ignores the advice, usually ending up with the very problems we foresaw or could have helped it foresee if we had been consulted. When the agency does consult with its clients on a national or local level, it usually leads to more consistent and effective policies or procedures, or at least better communication of the policies on which it has decided. Regular interaction with service intermediaries and attorneys also improves how new policies, new procedures, and new forms are implemented. Regular contact provides a forum for making the processing of applications more efficient. The perspective of agencies and associations like AILA may be from the outside, but sometimes that is a clearer place to be.
As I have noted above, many of these improvements could be incorporated by the Agency without any formal restructuring. The incorporation of customer service goals, for example, is already part of some adjudications aspects of the agency, and can be expanded. However, some of the most significant advancements that need to be undertaken -- the separation of functions, for example, or the elevation of service provision to a level equal to enforcement -- requires Congressional intervention. These are the changes most critical to reverse systemic problems of culture and accountability. For this reason we believe that major, Congressionally-approved changes would be the most practical and effective way to institute permanent change.
In view of the importance of immigration issues, and the need for not only high-level coordinated policymaking but also the authority to carry out those policies, AILA has come to believe that the best road would be creation of a new agency to be charged with all immigration policy and functions. It would combine all the functions currently scattered among several federal agencies, dividing those functions dealing with enforcement from those of providing services. Ideally, this agency should be given Cabinet-level authority. By providing the stature and resources of an agency changed with all immigration policy implementation, we can ensure that the dual goals of our national immigration policy -- keeping out of the country those who are not eligible to enter, while allowing those who are eligible to come to this country -- can be achieved.
Thank you again for this opportunity to share AILA=s general observations on the agency. I am pleased to answer any questions you may have.
The American Immigration Lawyers Association (AAILA@) is the national bar association of over 5,000 attorneys and law professors practicing and lecturing in the field of immigration law.
AILA member attorneys represent thousands of U.S. businesses and industries that sponsor highly skilled foreign workers seeking to enter the United States on a temporary or B after having proven the unavailability of U.S. workers B permanent basis. AILA members also represent many U.S. families who have applied for permanent residence for their spouses, children and other close relatives to lawfully enter and reside in the United States, or who seek the privilege of U.S. citizenship. In addition, AILA members represent foreign students, entertainers, athletes and asylum seekers, often on a pro bono basis.
Founded in 1946, AILA is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that provides its members with continuing legal education, information, professional services, and expertise, through its 35 chapters and over 50 national committees. AILA is an Affiliated Organization of the American Bar Association and is represented in the ABA House of Delegates.