THIS SPRING IN Washington, D.C., the federal government held what it called a decommissioning ceremony for the Immigration and Naturalization Service. After 112 years of existence, the INS was put out of business, its functions absorbed into that post9/11 creation, the Department of Homeland Security. Its the only agency thats been totally abolishednever to be put back together again, says Seattle-based immigration official Robert Okin. At the ceremony, he says, a lot of people were in tears.
THE BIG, BAD BORDER Iraq might be ground zero for Bushs terror war, but at home, one front line is our 5,000-mile border with Canada. Since 9/11, the U.S. has poured resources and manpower into Mexicanizing one of the worlds most peacefuland porousborders. But critics suggest that strategy wont work, and it could even make things worse. MORE
Okin wasnt. That might have something to do with his new, heartwarming role in what Okin calls the happy side of the house. Okin is now the interim Seattle director of the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services (BCIS)one of the three bureaus created under Homeland Security that deal with immigration and border issues.
For years, the INS took a lot of flak both internally and externally because of its dual mission: providing benefits like citizenship and cracking down on illegal immigrants. Immigrants and their advocates complained about harsh treatment while those on the enforcement side felt the INS to be insufficiently zealous. The new structure attempts to solve that problem. BCIS deals only in benefits, not enforcement.
Someone who is here illegally doesnt have a right to be here, Okin says. That being said, someone like that shouldnt be afraid to come in and ask a question about his situation. (Before asking such a question of the BCIS, an immigrant might want to check with a lawyer; the bureau is in a transition phase and cant assure immunity.) Were here to let people know what their status is, what their opportunities are to stay here, Okin continues.
Its fitting that Okin has been put into this feel-good position. Last December, when he was then acting district director of the INS, Okin ran into trouble for taking pity on Safouh Hamoui, a popular Edmonds grocer from Syria who had been detained on immigration charges. After releasing Hamoui pending court action, Okin was replaced as the local INS head.
The new Bureau of Customs and Border Protection is one of two new tougher siblings of the BCIS. Its job is to monitor the border. Combining inspectors from the former INS and Customs Service, it deals with both people and merchandise. Tom Hardy, the Seattle director of field operations for Customs and Border Protection, talks of standing guard against weapons of mass destruction that might show up on our borders. With that ever present in the bureaus mind, its no surprise that its officials are cracking down to some extent. But Hardy says that the bureau is mindful of the need to move cross-border traffic quickly and is doing what it can to identify dangerous people and goods before they get here. The worst thing for us is to identify a container with weapons of mass destruction on the waterfront.
The Border Patrol, formerly under the INS, is an independent division of Customs and Border Protection, dealing with areas between official ports of entry.
Perhaps the agency to be most feared by illegal immigrants is the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. It is responsible for enforcement and investigative work in the interior of the country. As such, all of the former investigative agents of both INS and Customs have been brought together in this bureau. What has been created is the second-largest law-enforcement agency in the countrysecond only to the FBI in size and probably, it could be argued, one of the most powerful authorities in the country, says Leigh Winchell, the interim Seattle head of the bureau. He notes that the bureau has the authority to look into matters pertaining to both Customs and immigration violations.
Under the radar screen now, the bureau is poised to become part of the popular lexicon. Having dropped the B in its acronym, it even has a supercool nickname: ICE.