It was the fifth conference of "Raphael's" lawsuit against the INS in as many months.
Raphael had done everything right: He entered the country legally and never overstayed a visa, he loved America and dreamed of becoming a citizen.
But he was forced to sue the INS to compel them to act on his citizen application, after it lost his family’s file for the second time—along with sets of fingerprints of his entire family which had just been cleared by the FBI.
In the year since the file was lost, the INS had done nothing to naturalize Raphael or his family. Now, the U.S. attorney assigned to defend the INS was telling the judge that although the INS had reconstructed the lost file, regulations prohibited them from approving a citizen application when the fingerprint check was more than 15 months old.
At the news that the family would have to submit new fingerprints, Raphael felt the hope drain out of him. His wife began to cry. The new fingerprints could take another year to clear. Through its blunders and inaction, the INS had set back the citizenship of Raphael and his family by almost two years.
To people like Raphael, last month’s House vote to split the INS into two more efficient entities comes too late.
Long before the INS mailed visa approvals to the terrorists who attacked the World Trade Center, it had garnered a reputation as the most inefficient of all federal agencies. In June 2001, an audit by the General Accounting Office found that between 1994 and 2001, the annual budget of the INS was quadrupled and its staff doubled—while its backlog of pending applications increased nearly four times, to 3.9 million.
But the INS is more than just inefficient. It is corrupt.
According to a Dec. 11, 2000, article in the San Francisco Chronicle, the Inspector General’s office commenced 4,551 internal investigations at the INS in 2000, reflecting one investigation for every seven employees. One quarter of these resulted in criminal convictions, the Chronicle reported.
The convictions are not minor. In 1998, Jesse Cardona, an INS employee of 15 years and a member of the Los Angeles anti-smuggling unit, removed 10 illegal immigrants from INS custody and ransomed them to their relatives. That same year, the Chronicle reported, INS border inspector Juan Villareal raped a Mexican woman he apprehended at the border and brought to a hotel.
In 1999, the Boston Globe reported that Adrian Federico, an assistant district director for Boston, was convicted of helping her brother obtain green cards through sham marriages he had arranged.
Many convictions demonstrate a disturbing trend: Criminals are increasingly able to compromise INS employees.
When the INS hired Joel Audain, a U.S. citizen of Haitian parentage who was fluent in Creole, the agency regarded Audain’s heritage and language ability as assets and assigned him to its inspection station at Miami International Airport. But by 1988, Audain was cooperating with members of Haiti’s military to ship cocaine from Colombia to Miami through Haiti, with Audain insuring that it would never be inspected.
In 1999, Audain was sentenced to life imprisonment for his part in smuggling 33 tons of cocaine onto America’s streets.
The fraud perpetrated two years later by Information Officer Jerry Floratos and a security guard, Nester Martinez, at Manhattan’s 26 Federal Plaza, was even more pernicious than Audain's crime. For more than a year, Floratos regularly sold INS visa stamps to Martinez, who stamped visas into the 25 or so passports of his "clients" he had with him each day. While it’s difficult to determine exactly how many passports were stamped, Floratos admitted that he sold the stamps to Martinez and Angela Salazar, a Bronx immigration consultant, for between $75 and $200 each, for a total of $10,000.
In reforming the INS, the government must do more than simply split the INS into two agencies (one to service aliens who seek to naturalize and the other to protect borders and apprehend illegal aliens). The Bureau of Immigration and the Bureau of Naturalization were, in fact, two separate entities between 1913 and 1933, when they were fused into the modern INS. The culture of the INS must be radically changed from one in which criminal employees disloyal to America act with impunity, to one in which employees know that their actions are being closely monitored, and that even the slightest infraction will result in the severest possible consequences.
Matt Hayes began practicing immigration law shortly after graduating from Pace University School of Law in 1994. He founded his own New York City firm in 1997, specializing in immigration law and representing new immigrants in civil and criminal matters. He recently left the practice for the "more normal life" of insurance defense. He lives in Bergen County, N.J.