The U.S. Congress late in its last session approved the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, which not only handles coordinate domestic security operations, it also takes over the responsibilities of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the INS. That has fueled the long-simmering debate over what role immigration services will play in the U.S. war against terrorism.
Since the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington in September 2001, securing U.S. land, airspace and sea borders has become a top priority. So has the need to better screen foreign visitors and would-be immigrants.
Acting Deputy INS Commissioner Mike Becraft says the war on terrorism, which led to the creation of a Department of Homeland Security, has brought a new reality to immigration procedures.
"We have had to increase our security checks significantly and that type of business is not going to stop," he said. "So we have to find systems and develop systems and work closely with other folks that will allow us to improve on the expeditious manner in which we do it but that isn't going to stop."
But that renewed emphasis on security has alarmed immigration advocates who fear immigrants are being unfairly targeted.
Donald Kerwin is Executive Director of the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, which provides legal and social services to immigration programs around the country.
"While we recognize and appreciate the real security issues raised by 9/11 and the ongoing terrorist threat, our main concern is that this is a nation of 31 million foreign-born people and children and these are the people we see every day," he said. "So to us how we treat and incorporate these people into the U.S. is crucially important. Our fear is that immigrants are now going to be treated as potential terrorists."
Immigration lawyers also complain about civil rights abuses and unfair profiling of immigrants who are unwittingly caught in the government's manhunt for potential terrorists. New rules implemented this year now require the fingerprinting of visitors from more than half a dozen Middle East countries. Foreign students are more closely tracked and many have found it harder to return to U.S. schools because of tighter visa procedures.
Jeanne Butterfield runs the Washington-based American Immigration Lawyers Association. She says a lot of the problem has to do with a lack of coordination between two key functions of the INS - services and enforcement.
"I think this is the place from a customer's standpoint that we have the greatest concern," she said. "Every one of the functions of INS requires some cooperation between enforcement and services."
INS official Mike Becraft complains about the lack of people and funds to do the job but hopes that dissolving the INS into the Department of Homeland Security will help.
"INS won't look the same. That's history," he said. "But how INS coordinates and integrates internally and how it deals with its brother and sister organizations is something very important to us. And how immigration services and security stay connected is extremely important."
Former INS Commissioner Doris Meissner predicts the emphasis on security can benefit immigration procedures because, she says, information will have to be kept up to date for security. And that, she says, should also include better data sharing between immigration and security services, border crossings and overseas consulates where visas are screened and processed.
"My own view is that all of the INS work will be improved and strengthened if it gets the priority and attention that it requires," she said. "I'm not so concerned about these things being in Homeland Security if they get the funding and the leadership that is needed to move the agenda forward."
Still immigration advocate Jeanne Butterfield of the American Immigration Lawyers Association fear that mixing immigration security and anti-terrorism measures too much could end up shutting the door to immigrants.
"Or people are so discouraged by these new practices and procedures that they go elsewhere and take their many talents and contributions elsewhere," she said. "Then this nation will be irrevocably weakened and the terrorists will have won."
The operations of the INS should be officially transferred to the Department of Homeland Security on March 1. INS Deputy Commissioner Becraft says consultations with immigration groups will continue through the transition period to try to address their concerns.
Part of VOA's Yearend Series