INS Proposes Reforms, Outcome in Question

The first major and sweeping policy changes since Sept. 11 will hit the Immigration and Naturalization Service in the next couple weeks as the embattled INS commissioner attempts to come out from under criticism that his organization is in massive disarray.

INS Commissioner James Ziglar is expected to unveil changes that include:

• shortening the length of visitors' visas from six months to one;

• implementing an Internet-based system to track foreign students;

• requiring schools to tell the INS about student attendance and dropouts;

• requiring foreign students to declare their intentions to attend U.S. schools before they reach the United States, rather than arriving and then seeking status changes;

• prohibiting foreign students from beginning classes until they are granted visas; and

• developing a system to monitor all who enter and exit the United States.

Academics worry that there is an overemphasis on foreign students.

"Only 2 percent are students, the other 98 are where the problem is, and we don't know anything about them," said David Ward of the American Association of Higher Education.

The challenge the INS faces appear fairly overwhelming. INS officials say the changes they are proposing in the coming weeks will be implemented by next year. But few think that's possible considering that the electronic database itself will require three to four years to upgrade.

Furthermore, the INS is dealing with a numerical problem. In just two months following Sept. 11, 7,000 visas were issued to men from countries where Al Qaeda operates.

The Census Bureau estimates 115,000 Middle Easterners are in the United States illegally. The INS backlog is roughly 4.5 million visa applications, and at any moment 300,000 people face deportation but remain here. The Justice Department admits they cannot be found.

"We are going to focus on individuals who have been ordered deported from this country and ignore the judicial orders, and we do not know where they are, where they presently are," said Deputy Attorney General Larry Thompson.

Two weeks ago, the House passed legislation to improve border security, including a measure intended to make certain illegal aliens eligible for green cards if they meet certain tough criteria. 

The president urged passage before meeting with heads of state on his South American trip, but because of confusing legislative language, critics charge that there is a mind-boggling loophole that would actually allow green cards for "any alien who has engaged, is engaged, or at any time after admission engages in any terrorist activity."

Authors of the measure say the loophole is an error but they downplay the blunder, pointing to a backstop 1997 INS rule that terrorists should not be given green cards.

The Senate has yet to take up the measure and can close the loophole when it does.