Straddling the Border

[ American Studies ]

Straddling the Border

Immigration Policy and the INS

By Lisa Magaña

Why a profound disconnection between national-level policymaking and local-level policy implementation prevents the INS from effectively fulfilling either its enforcement or its service mission.



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6 x 9 | 132 pp.

ISBN: 978-0-292-70176-2

With the dual and often conflicting responsibilities of deterring illegal immigration and providing services to legal immigrants, the U. S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) is a bureaucracy beset with contradictions. Critics fault the agency for failing to stop the entry of undocumented workers from Mexico. Agency staff complain that harsh enforcement policies discourage legal immigrants from seeking INS aid, while ever-changing policy mandates from Congress and a lack of funding hinder both enforcement and service activities.

In this book, Lisa Magaña convincingly argues that a profound disconnection between national-level policymaking and local-level policy implementation prevents the INS from effectively fulfilling either its enforcement or its service mission. She begins with a history and analysis of the making of immigration policy which reveals that federal and state lawmakers respond more to the concerns, fears, and prejudices of the public than to the realities of immigration or the needs of the INS. She then illustrates the effects of shifting and conflicting mandates through case studies of INS implementation of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, Proposition 187, and the 1996 Welfare Reform and Responsibility Act and their impact on Mexican immigrants. Magaña concludes with fact-based recommendations to improve the agency's performance.

  • Acknowledgments
  • Chapter One. The Immigration Policy Process: A Recurring Theme
  • Chapter Two. Immigration Policies and Their Impact on the INS
  • Chapter Three. "We Aren't Sexy Enough": Working Conditions at the INS
  • Chapter Four. The Immigration Reform and Control Act: A Case Study
  • Chapter Five. Social Services: A Case Study
  • Chapter Six. Where Are We in the Immigration Policy Process?
  • Appendix One. Immigration Reform and Control Act of November 6, 1986
  • Appendix Two. Text of Proposition 187
  • Appendix Three. Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of August 22, 1996
  • Appendix Four. Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of September 30, 1996
  • Appendix Five. Policy Summary
  • Appendix Six. Protocol Questions
  • Appendix Seven. Immigration Laws, 1790-1996
  • Notes
  • Glossary
  • References
  • Index

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In 1999 I attended a meeting with Doris Meissner, federal commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). The purpose of the meeting was to discuss the mounting immigration crisis in Arizona. The number of immigrant deaths in the desert had quadrupled since 1993. An increase in the number of Border Patrol agents in Texas and California had resulted in undocumented immigrants attempting to enter the United States through the less guarded Nogales-Arizona region, where temperatures can reach a staggering 10 degrees. Unfortunately, fewer Border Patrol agents result in less assistance for immigrants unprepared for the brutal Arizona climate.

Before this meeting, I talked to two high-ranking INS officials. I told them that I was a political scientist conducting research on undocumented Mexican migration. They informed me that there are two issues that need examination in immigration research. First, the public generally does not understand what the agency does. One INS representative remarked, "People only see Border Patrol agents. What we really do is a lot of paperwork. Someone needs to do research on the bureaucrats, but I guess that is not sexy enough." Although substantial resources and manpower are directed to enforcement policies, such as patrolling the border, it is the bureaucrats who process and have significant influence on Mexican immigrants. Second, many of the policies assigned to the agency in the past two decades are not based on realistic approaches to curbing immigration. Rather, immigration policies are motivated by the political and popular sentiments of the moment.

After this discussion, I reviewed the research on the agency. My investigation confirmed what the INS officials had told me. Indeed, I found that there are few studies on the bureaucrats of the agency or on the effect that immigration policies have on the INS. The purpose of this book is to bridge this gap. I show how major immigration policies in the past twenty years have influenced INS bureaucrats and the quality of service afforded to Mexican immigrants. How immigration polices are crafted and then implemented by the INS is what I define as the "immigration policy process."

The way in which an agency carries out policy mandates has a great deal to do with whether those policies will be successes or failures. That is, from a theoretical research perspective, organizational characteristics such as (1) impossible and multiple tasks, (2) illogical and shifting federal mandates, and (3) apparent ineffectiveness and inefficiency merit consideration. This book also explores how the INS implements immigration policies despite what appear to be illogical organizational mandates. It shows how policies and agency directives are based on the prevailing political economy, with little consideration of the efficiency of these policies or the effect on the target group, in this case, Mexican immigrants. In many ways, this book is also about policy congruence, that is, making the policies fit with the design and abilities of the agency.

According to the INS 1998 Statistical Yearbook (1999), Mexican immigrants are the largest group admitted into the United States legally, as well as the largest group naturalized. Mexican immigrants are also the largest group apprehended and deported by the INS. Clearly, the role of the INS in the lives of Mexican immigrants must be considered in immigration debates as well as in policy reform.

Popular Sentiment

Immigration issues historically have been clouded by emotion, especially during the past twenty years. According to a national Gallup Poll conducted in 1993, Americans believe that most immigrants are undocumented. Americans also believe that most undocumented immigrants are Latin American, typically Mexican, and that they take more than they contribute to the U.S. economy (De Sipio and de la Garza 1998).

Espenshade and Balanger (1998) examined American attitudes toward different types of immigrants based on their ethnicity. They found that Mexican immigrants were ranked lowest and European immigrants were ranked highest in positive social attributes, such as family values and working hard. Mexican immigrants were perceived as more likely to use welfare and commit more crime. Furthermore, Americans believe that the United States is admitting too many immigrants from Asia and Latin America. These data clearly reflect Americans' passionate interest in "illegal" immigration over "legal" immigration. This is further evidenced by the fact that nine out of ten respondents thought the United States should do a better job of enforcing its borders. Interestingly, these researchers established a clear link between public attitudes toward immigration issues and economic conditions. They wrote that attitudes toward immigration "are partially conditioned by the state of the macroeconomy and that these attitudes harden when employment prospects for workers dim" (Espenshade and Balanger 11998: 367).

Political Agenda Setting

Short and Magaña (1998) found that undocumented immigration, as a political agenda, was a significant issue in elections during the 1990s. Politicians are aware of immigration reform's value as an election year issue. Between 1992 and 1998, for example, there were a number of political referenda and initiatives designed to reduce undocumented immigration at both the state and national levels, particularly during the congressional and presidential election cycles of 1996. We also found that after elections, the number of such proposals decreased dramatically (see Tables 1, 2, 3).

Tables 1, 2, and 3 show that immigration, as a political issue, was championed by Republicans and that Mexican immigrants were constructed negatively in terms of their influence on the economy and cultural norms.

Politicians shape immigration issues to their advantage, to move other political agendas to the forefront. An INS representative once told me, "Congress treats immigration law as something less important than tax or drug or other laws. Furthermore, members of Congress criticize the INS for its inability to control immigration without really understanding what we do" (pers. com. 1999).

It is important to note that there are no clearly defined ideological or partisan agendas surrounding undocumented immigration. Although the past twenty years show that in general Republicans are more likely than Democrats to advocate restricting immigration, some conservative Republicans extol the virtues of hardworking immigrants as good for the economy, and some liberal Democrats decry the presence of undocumented immigrants because they negatively affect the environment or cause a decrease in wages. This lack of clarity on the part of politicians and political parties tends to make the issue of undocumented immigration reform less clear to constituents, as both ends of the political spectrum base their arguments on populist and emotional appeals. The result has been policies based on emotional appeal with little concern for the agency's capacity to carry out its assigned duties.

Political party affiliation is based on a variety of factors. First, if there is significant representation of elected officials of one party in the community where one resides, then there is greater likelihood one will choose that party. Second, a person may choose one party over the other because of its stance on social and ethical issues, such as government spending, the death sentence, or abortion. Third, a person may choose to remain aligned with the party with which his or her parents are affiliated. Because people are not likely to change party affiliation, voter registration drives in Latino communities are crucial in recruiting and sustaining membership. Given these factors, Mexican Americans generally identify themselves as Democrats.

Historically, the role of the federal government has also solidified party preference among Latinos. President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal, for instance, implemented policies—housing, urban development, and employment programs—that assisted Mexican Americans and brought them into the Democratic Party. And during the 1960s, President Lyndon Johnson's Great Society implemented public works, medical assistance, and job training programs that also solidified the relationship between Mexican Americans and the Democratic Party. Another pivotal event that strengthened the union between Mexican Americans and the Democratic Party was the "Viva Kennedy Campaign."

Recently, Mexican Americans have shifted slightly their party preference. For some, the Republican agenda on issues such as family values and abortion has been more meaningful. Because Mexican Americans constitute the largest and fastest growing Latino group in the United States and no longer vote monolithically, they have become a crucial swing vote in political campaigns.

Political parties are aware of the potential voting power of Mexican Americans and are actively courting them for the first time in history. Exit polls indicate that they are voting in greater numbers than ever before. Their presence in states such as Texas, California, and Florida can mean the difference between winning or losing elections. The Democratic Party has taken a more favorable stance on immigration, although more recently Republicans have begun to use immigration as a means of courting voters as well.

Immigrant Misperceptions

Politicians and candidates may disingenuously use pejorative social stereotypes when discussing immigrants in order to appeal to their constituents' fears. For example, when Pete Wilson ran for the presidency in 1996 he maintained that hundreds of thousands of immigrants come to the United States to take advantage of social services and welfare. In a campaign speech delivered in front of the Statue of Liberty, Wilson said, "The illegal immigrants are coming, and that means crime, more welfare mothers and lotsa spicy food!" (Boston Globe, September 1, 1995) This is simply untrue, as social services are not allocated to individuals in the United States who are undocumented. Congress bars undocumented immigrants from receiving Aid for Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), Supplemental Security Income (SSI), Food Stamps, Medicaid (except in emergencies), housing assistance, legal services, unemployment insurance, and student financial aid. Some studies have found that Mexican immigrants are even less likely to use available welfare resources than other groups because they are more likely to use home remedies, are unfamiliar with available resources, and are fearful of deportation (e.g., de la Torre and Estrada 2001).

Although rates of use are difficult to measure, studies consistently indicate that social services are not a significant magnet for undocumented immigrants. Simply put, immigrants migrate for employment. Politicians' willingness to use immigration issues to gain election and the ease with which they are able to sway voters reflect a general misunderstanding by the public regarding immigration issues and social services. Other misunderstandings include the actual number of undocumented immigrants, their reasons for migrating, and our economic dependence on this population.

Immigrants are a highly diverse group, some of them with legal status and some of them with undocumented status. Some immigrants, both legal and illegal, are well educated, and some provide investment and business opportunities in their communities. According to the 2000 census, approximately 10 percent of the total U.S. population is foreign born. Mexican legal immigrants make up approximately 30 percent of this immigrant population.

Figures for undocumented immigrants are never precise. Nevertheless, the best estimates put the total undocumented immigrant population at approximately 2 percent to 3 percent of the U.S. population, with approximately half coming from Mexico. The majority of the undocumented population comprises persons who entered the United States legally for business or pleasure and who then failed to leave after their visas expired (INS 1999). Undocumented immigrants who enter the United States at areas other than border points of entry are referred to as entries without inspections (EWIs).

Reasons for migrating to the United States are complex. A voluminous body of literature suggests that people migrate for a number of reasons, including social networks that facilitate migration (Massey et al. 1987; Portes and Rumbaut 1996; Menjivar 2000), lack of employment opportunities in the sending country (Sassen 1994), and employment demands for cheap labor (Cornelius 1998), among other reasons. Further, immigration, particularly Mexican immigration, is the result of economic expansion policies facilitated by the United States. U.S. border states and Mexico are interconnected more than ever as a result of trade and liberalization policies. For instance, attempts to enhance economic expansion, such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), have had the effect of leaving millions of Mexicans out of the restructuring who then see the need to migrate (Chapa 1998).

Social and Economic Impacts

The social and economic impacts of demographic shifts may be surprising to the general public. For instance, studies show that the mere presence of immigrants in the economy results in a net gain in tax revenue, both federal and local, as well as overall spending in consumption (e.g., Fix and Passel 1994). Immigrant presence also creates jobs for American workers and does not seem to cause a rise in unemployment (Briggs and Moore 1994). However, foreign workers are susceptible to wage and employment exploitation, they are imported and repatriated in times of high unemployment, and they serve as scapegoats during economic crises (Wilson 1997)

Organizational Studies

The INS is responsible for enforcing immigration laws and servicing immigrants (Morris 1985). Researchers have found that this dual mission of the agency influences its representatives' ability to carry out immigration policies. The contradictory goals of policy objectives, both formal and informal, "serve to weaken the commitment on the part of INS representatives to implement organizational directives" (Calavita 1991: 9). Although the agency's enforcement activities generate a significant amount of attention, they are only one part of its overall mission. One study has shown that the public's tendency to believe that the INS is more interested in enforcement than in service deters legal Mexican immigrants from going to the agency, for example, to apply for naturalization (NALEO 1989).

In the past decade, a number of new immigration policies have been enacted. This has meant increased responsibilities and new roles and procedures for the agency to pursue. For instance, when President Bill Clinton mandated that immigrants be processed more expeditiously, INS representatives maintained that they were not given enough resources to do so. These mandates have not coincided with sufficient time to formulate clear agency guidelines, and as a result, implementation has suffered (Dunn 1996).

The environments in which policy actors operate have a great deal to do with the way policy decisions are made. Theorists find that environments inculcate systems of rewards and values in the minds of policy actors. For example, local policy actors who work in federal agencies have overwhelming and complex duties to perform. The expectations placed on them are ambiguous, vague, and often conflicting. Furthermore, since agencies are often large, actors can only see problems narrowly and independently of their connections to other issues. Therefore, agencies as a whole find it difficult to change or improve (Bardach and Kagan 1982; Kanter 1983).

Ripley (1986) explains that bureaucracies have the most pervasive influence on the implementation of policies. The factors that influence implementation are reorganization of staff and programs, available resources, and relationships with other agencies, clients, Congress, the president, and the institutional presidency (Ripley 1986: 59). A variety of studies focusing on the INS's organizational constraints show that the agency must carry out immigration policies with inadequate funding (e.g., North and Portz 1989). One study shows that the agency's inability to carry out policies effectively was a result of the its poor organization and its management style (GAO 1991).

INS bureaucrats, particularly those at the local level, have the most influence over policy decisions. That is to say, regardless of the political and financial capital dedicated to a given immigration policy and the clarity with which it is defined, its effectiveness ultimately rests with the individual responsible for its implementation (Lipsky 1980; Romzek 1999). Therefore, the working conditions and the constraints placed on bureaucrats should be taken into consideration when assessing why policies succeed or fail. Because expectations placed on INS representatives tend to be ambiguous and their performance is impossible to measure, researchers have found that it is necessary to look at the policy process (Middleton 1997; Lindenberg 2000).

The Immigration Policy Process

What is missing from the research is the effect of the immigration policy process on the INS. Simply defined, the policy process refers to how policies are created and assigned to the agency and then how the agency carries out these policies. Consider the following theoretical framework as an illustration of the policy process for the INS.

Popular and emotional reactions to undocumented immigration develop at the local and state levels. When these sentiments eventually reach politicians at the federal level, Congress responds with new policy, which only creates more responsibilities for the INS. When these immigration policies are eventually assigned to the INS without appropriate improvements in the budget and the organizational infrastructure, the overall morale and quality of service suffers. The agency appears inefficient, and new policies are created to improve agency performance. (See Figure 1.)

Other federal agencies suffer from similar organizational problems. For example, the Food and Drug Administration is criticized for approving drugs either too slowly or too quickly. The Internal Revenue Service is responsible for collecting taxes but also for servicing the needs of clients. The Environmental Protection Agency must police industries and at the same time provide assistance. As a result of having a dual mission, procedures for resolving problems are complex and further complicated by external forces, such as popular sentiment and political grandstanding. Dual mission agencies are then criticized for their inability to process policy mandates.

Methodological Considerations

To study the immigration policy process and the INS, I used both quantitative and qualitative sources. Studies that examine the INS often use macro evaluations or quantitative approaches, such as assessing the rate of Border Patrol apprehensions, the number of people processed, or the amount of funding for operations in a given year. While these data are useful, I contend that they reflect only part of the picture for the reasons cited above. Therefore, this study relies on qualitative research methodologies as a means to supplement and enhance existing quantitative approaches. In particular, I conducted extensive interviews, which provide insight into the organizational dynamics of the INS that traditional quantitative approaches are unable to describe fully. The interview process provides a unique perspective on the inner workings of the agency that are only partially reflected by other means such as survey research.

My methodology can be described as a field study approach, using in-depth interviews. This type of evaluation is based on the assumption that researchers at the local level are able to tap and interpret relevant policy developments and impacts. Field studies are useful when conducting research on the various levels of policy analysis, particularly during the implementation phase. Furthermore, in-depth interviews make it possible for researchers to clarify issues not articulated in immigration studies. For instance, they provide large amounts of information because they hold a respondent's attention longer than does a survey or telephone questionnaire. Respondents may also assist the researcher in pursuing areas not initially considered.

There are several problems associated with using in-depth interviews as a research tool, however. The respondent's comments cannot be generalized for the population at large, and the interviewer can have undue influence on the recorded responses. For instance, in-person interviews can produce highly biased data because of the interview process itself. "Recorded responses may reflect real-world facts or attitudes less than they reflect the reactions of respondents to a given interview, the biases of the interviewer, the liberties the interviewer takes in asking questions, or the interview style employed" (Manheim and Rich 198i: 118). It must be borne in mind, therefore, that a respondent's comments cannot be generalized to all agency employees.

From the mid-1990s to 2001, I conducted approximately eighty-five in-depth interviews with past and current federal commissioners of the INS, regional commissioners of the INS, and district directors and local INS representatives; sixty-five interviews were ultimately used for this book. Usually, the interviews lasted two to three hours. Some respondents were reinterviewed.

To gain access to some of the representatives in the agency, I had to submit to the public relations person and the district director of Los Angeles written statements describing why I wanted to interview INS individuals, my interview questions, the point of my research, and who would read these findings. After six weeks of correspondence and several inperson visits, I was authorized to interview representatives currently employed by the INS. After I interviewed some INS representatives it became much easier to interview others, as interviewees made calls or introduced me to other key respondents. The individuals I interviewed who were no longer employed by the INS provided candid insights into the agency's organizational environment. From the federal down to the street level, my sample responses represent the experiences of INS employees.

I also interviewed representatives of immigrant advocacy groups in order to understand some of the relevant constitutional and civil issues. Interviews were conducted in Los Angeles, California, Phoenix, Arizona, Santa Ana, California, and Washington, D.C. Like most of the INS respondents, most immigrant advocates wished to remain anonymous. Those respondents whose names appear in this book gave me permission. The list of interview questions can be found in Appendix 6. Table 4 provides information on the number of respondents by title.

Policy evaluations conducted by governmental agencies such as the Justice Department, the General Accounting Office (GAO), and the INS have been used. These agencies assess the performance of the INS at the federal, regional, and local levels. Surveys of immigrants who have dealt with the INS are also included, as are newspaper articles and other sources. Books, journals, and policy and immigration studies have also been used for this study.

Organization of This Book

This book is organized as follows. Chapter 2 reviews the history of U.S. immigration policy and demonstrates how the immigration policy process has evolved over the past one hundred fifty years.

Chapter 3 explores the organizational characteristics of the INS, its complexity, its highly bureaucratic nature, and its dual mission. The two main units within the INs-Enforcement and Service-have opposing objectives, which has led to serious organizational conflicts. In short, the agency is at odds with itself.

Chapter 4 examines how the INS has implemented the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA), perhaps the most important immigration policy reform of the twentieth century. The overall objective of IRCA was to decrease the number of undocumented immigrants in the United States by implementing two provisions: employer sanctions and legalization. I demonstrate that while the INS is better known for implementing its enforcement directives, it is highly effective at implementing the legalization, or service, provision of IRCA.

Chapter 5 explores the recent impact of welfare reform on the INS. I show that with the passage of Proposition 187 in California and the 1996 Welfare Reform Act, the number of immigrants seeking naturalization tripled. INS representatives were unprepared for the significant increase in the number of immigrants applying for assistance.

In Chapter 6 I review my overall findings and make recommendations for improving agency performance. I also explore policy and research implications for future immigration policies.

Lisa L. Magaña is Assistant Professor of Chicana/Chicano Studies at Arizona State University.

"This is the single most significant new work on the multiple missions of INS (a proposed division of the new Department of Homeland Security) and the complex, highly political environment the agency operates within.... A MUST read not only for scholars and students of immigration policy and politics, but also for all concerned with the complexities of policy implementation and regulatory enforcement. Magaña has crafted a gem."
—John G. Bretting, Associate Professor, Political Science, and Director, Master of Public Administration Program, College of Charleston