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INS split could accelerate application process

Veronica Whitney

Eduardo Maclean of Argentina, who works at the front desk at the Park Hyatt Beaver Creek, also expects to get a new visa. His old one expires in July. He says it could take about three months to process his application.

“If it takes any longer than that, I might have to leave the country,” Maclean says.

Hlaiz and Maclean are just two of thousands of foreign workers who live in the Vail Valley, and the possible restructuring of the Immigration and Naturalization Service could mean faster processing for their applications.

Last week, the U.S. House of Representatives voted 405-9 to abolish the INS, replacing it with two agencies. One would enforce immigration laws and monitor the nation’s borders while the other would provide services, such as helping immigrants with their applications for visas and citizenship.

The restructuring bill still has to pass the U.S. Senate and be signed by President Bush.

“It’s hard to have the same entity doing enforcement and benefits,” says Sienna La Rene, an immigration attorney in Edwards. “The INS consists now of two different departments with the same leadership and this is not working. The INS is overwhelmed.”

The House vote signaled Congress’s determination to overhaul the nation’s immigration system after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The INS took a beating again in March after it mailed visa change approvals to a flying school in Florida for two of the dead Sept. 11 hijackers.

“Congress has become increasingly frustrated with the INS’ poor performance,” says Blain Rethmeier, spokesman for U.S. Rep. Scott McInnis, R-Grand Junction, who was among the overwhelming majority to vote for the restructuring.

Rethmeier says McInnis hopes a breakup of the INS and a splitting of its duties will increase efficiency in processing applications and enhancing border monitoring.

One of the problems the INS faces, he says, is the backlog of over 4.9 million applications.

“It appears that the INS is working against itself. Those who apply to enter legally can’t enter the country for three years; others enter illegally without waiting. You can’t force aliens to play by the rules and wait for years when others are entering the country illegally.”

It takes the INS in Denver about 16 to 18 months to process a legal permanent resident visa, known commonly as a “green card.”

“Because the waiting period to process an application is so long, that encourages people to enter the country illegally,” Rethmeier says.

Mike McGerry of the Colorado Alliance for Immigration Reform says part of INS’ problem is confusion about its mission.

“The INS needs to be divided,” says McGerry, a resident of Aspen. “You have to split the agency, change the leadership and bring numbers (of applications) down.”

McGee says the country needs to bring legal immigration below 200,000 – now it’s close to 1 million, with an additional estimated 500,000 illegals, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

“The (U.S.) Census Bureau says about 200,000 Americans leave the country every year, so that will keep the growth of our population balanced”.

The splitting of the INS is something Congress has been considering for many years, Rethmeier says.

“Congress has worked with this issue for 15 years. We’ve increased the INS budget in 1992 from 1.4 billion to 5.5 billion, and notwithstanding the budgetary extension, the INS performance hasn’t improved,” he says. “What happened last year shows how dysfunctional the agency structure is.”

La Rene agrees.

“This is not something occurring because of 9-11,” she says. “The decision to split was made three years ago. What 9-11 did was to accelerate the process.”

A step closer to being restructured, the INS will keep providing benefits and enforcing immigration law as usual, says INS spokeswoman Nina Pruneda-Muniz.

“A lot of Hispanic people have been contacting Latino media outlets across the state to ask where they should go with their customer service request,” Pruneda-Muniz says. “We guarantee that we will keep providing customer service and benefits to those who are eligible and enforcing the law on those who are in violation of the law.”

The INS office in Denver is open Monday through Thursday from 7:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. The customer toll-free number is 1-800-375 5283.

Veronica Whitney can be reached at (970) 949-0555 ext. 454 or at vwhitney@vaildaily.com.


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