INS woes: Who's to blame?

Bureaucratus: Guess who processed the hijackers' visa paperwork? Not federal employees.

Recently, the Immigration and Naturalization Service was publicly embarrassed when it became known that the agency had issued visas to two of the terrorists who crashed planes into the World Trade Center on Sept. 11.

A flight school in Venice, Fla., received notification on March 11 that INS had approved student visas for two of its alumni: Mohamed Atta and Marwan Al-Shehhi, who reportedly piloted the jetliners that hit the twin towers.

Two Republican congressmen, one from Colorado and the other from Wisconsin, sharply criticized INS, saying it "was completely and totally dysfunctional." The press really had a field day with this one. President Bush, at a press briefing, said that he was "plenty hot" about it. Critics called for the dismantling of INS.

Glossed over by the media was the fact that a decision to issue the visas was made last summer, well before Sept. 11. At the time, there wasn't any information outstanding that should have prevented INS from granting the request.

In addition, because of a backlog at INS, the paperwork wasn't processed until just recently. And guess who processed the paperwork? Not federal employees.

The final mailing to Atta and Al-Shehhi was sent by a processing center in London, Ky., run by a private contractor, Affiliated Computer Services Inc. Processing the application and sending out the notice was the responsibility of the private-sector contractor, not federal employees. President Bush: Do you still want to increase the number of federal jobs that are contracted out?

"Experienced INS workers who have been working 12-hour shifts to fight the war on terrorism should not be wrongly accused for a contractor's serious error," said Bobby Harnage, national president of the American Federation of Government Employees. And he's right. What's scary is that both liberals and conservatives have been quite eager to bash feds on this issue.

Last fall, Attorney General John Ashcroft unveiled the Bush administration's plans to overhaul INS, dividing the agency into two components: one responsible for law enforcement, the other in charge of services to immigrants. The effort was intended to head off more drastic congressional proposals to effectively dismantle the agency. Congress is unhappy with INS because it has no system in place for tracking foreign students, and that's a legitimate beef.

Meanwhile, INS' director recently testified before Congress that the agency "is currently on schedule" to introduce a modern system for tracking foreign students by Jan. 1, 2003. The system would replace the approach in which INS examiners mail information to a processing center, where a private contractor enters data and ultimately sends paperwork back to a school on the status of an applicant.

These changes make sense, but blaming INS for the failure of a contractor is neither accurate nor fair. And is it really fair to hold federal employees accountable if federal contractors are not?

Zall is a retired federal employee who since 1987 has written the Bureaucratus column for Federal Computer Week. He can be reached at milt.zall@verizon.net.

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