The New Era in U.S. Immigration

February 2003


"Upon completion of all transfers from the Immigration and Naturalization Service as provided for by this Act, the Immigration and Naturalization Service of the Department of Justice is abolished."

So says Section 471 of the Homeland Security Act of 2002, Public Law 107-296. The transfer of essential functions to the Department of Homeland Security will be completed on March 1, 2003, so effectively the Immigration and Naturalization Service will cease to exist on that date. The question, of course, is what that will mean for noncitizens in the United States. Structurally, the current functions of the INS will be transferred to three different divisions of the Department of Homeland Security. Enforcement efforts will be conducted by two Bureaus under the Directorate of Border and Transportation Security. The Bureau of Customs and Border Protection, led by former Customs Commissioner Robert Bonner, will be responsible for port of entry inspections, Customs and Agricultural Quarantine Inspections. Michael Garcia, currently Acting Commissioner of INS, formerly an Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Export Enforcement and previously a U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York where he participated in prosecutions stemming from the bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993, has been designated to head the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. This bureau will be responsible for enforcement of customs and immigration laws within the U.S., including detention and removal of noncitizens as well as intelligence and investigations.

The third bureau with responsibility for duties of the INS is the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services [BCIS]. Eduardo Aguirre, formerly Vice Chairman and First Vice President of the U.S. Export-Import Bank, has been designated as Acting Director of the Bureau, pending formal nomination by the President and confirmation by the U.S. Senate. Prior to his appointment at the Export-Import Bank, Mr. Aguirre worked for Bank of America for 24 years. He is a naturalized citizen of the U.S., having immigrated to the U.S. as part of "Operation Pedro Pan" in which over 14,000 Cuban children were brought to the U.S. in the early 1960s under sponsorship of the Catholic Welfare Bureau. The Director of Citizenship and Immigration Services reports directly to the Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security, Gordon England, who was previously Secretary of the Navy.

While every person arriving in the United States either by air or through a land port of entry will come into contact with the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection, most of the work we do for clients will be through the BCIS. The INS Service Centers will be transferred to the BCIS virtually intact, and the Application Support Centers, Asylum Offices, and District Offices will continue processing applications in the short term. In the longer term, the District Offices are likely to be dissolved [reports say within one year] and replaced by separate offices for enforcement and services. The functions of the Service Centers may also be changed so that centers focus on particular types of applications, rather than having geographic jurisdiction of applications. Current examples of this are filing for reentry permits, which is done at the Nebraska Service Center regardless of residence, and for LIFE Act petitions, which are processed only at the Missouri Service Center.

All currently pending cases will be processed by BCIS, and INS forms will be accepted until further notice. Fees may be made payable to either INS or BCIS. Except for normal updates, such as changes of address, no action is required on pending applications. The INS website address has been changed to and that will continue to be the address under the Department of Homeland Security. On-line case status will be available. Unfortunately, the Service Centers will lose their individual telephone inquiry systems and all telephonic "assistance" will be converted to the National Customer Service Center, which will not have access to information on individual cases. If implemented as proposed, there will be a very cumbersome internal email system to reach information officers, making it virtually impossible to resolve even simple issues such as misdirected correspondence.

The Department of Homeland Security website promises, "[T]he Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services will dedicate its full energies to providing efficient immigration services and easing the transition to American citizenship." While everyone involved in the transition hopes it will be seamless, and the new agency will be more efficient, only time will tell. One thing is clear: immigration is now viewed through the lens of national security.

Palma Yanni

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