E.g., 04/13/2024
E.g., 04/13/2024
Interview with Doris Meissner

Interview with Doris Meissner

Doris Meissner

(Photo: Migration Policy Institute)

Doris Meissner, former head of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, is now a Senior Fellow at the Migration Policy Institute. The Source asked for her perspective on changes in U.S. immigration policy, the prospects for an immigration agreement with Mexico, and the newly approved Department of Homeland Security.

What are your views on what the government is doing post-September 11 to increase security at our borders? In the same vein, what are the pros and cons of closely linking immigration and defense policy?

The immigration actions the government has taken since last September paint a very mixed picture. Some things are being done that have been needed for a long time. At the same time, the government has done other things that are not productive, things that have come at the expense of people's rights. In many ways, these have been panicky reactions on the part of officials who felt absolutely compelled to do something. I think some of the restrictions that have been put in place are an overreaction.

In terms of useful changes, I start with the integrity of the visa process. Strengthening that process and working out systems that give visa officers the fullest range of information have always been very important, with or without September 11, but those events brought these changes to the top of the priority list.

The issuance of visas abroad is the first and, in many ways, the most important line of defense we have in screening people who come to this country. Strengthening the visa process has resulted in new delays for people coming into the United States. These delays seem pretty much across the board, and are particularly tough for people coming from 10-15 of what are considered high-risk countries. Delays to the visa process now exist because there is much more scrutiny placed on security clearance and name checks for refugees and immigrants, as well as non-immigrants such as students. The scrutiny is important; the delays must be reduced.

Another valuable change centers on information sharing within the government. In my opinion, the single most important question that we need to answer in order to strengthen our security is: "How do you achieve effective information sharing within the government, and get the right kind of information to the front-line agencies - the visa officers in the State Department, which handles visas overseas; the immigration inspectors at airports; customs officers at airports and on the borders; and border patrol offices and counterpart officials in other countries?" At the same time, however, the question raises concerns about our openness as a country to immigration and to travel in and out of the country.

Before September 11, we had an intelligence firewall between the information that was used and collected by the international security agencies in our government and the information collected by domestic agencies. That manifested itself in the difference between the responsibilities of the CIA and the FBI. There's a long legal history of not mixing the information produced by those two agencies. In practice, it has also been a strained relationship organizationally. September 11 demonstrated dramatically how the world we live in today demands virtual seamlessness in the information from foreign and domestic information systems available to our officials and visa officers.

"The single most remarkable development post-September 11, from an immigration standpoint, is that we had no debate or serious effort to shut down immigration."

The government is now working intensively to solve the information flow problems. What I've heard anecdotally is that the improvements that have taken place in cooperation and information sharing have been very positive in terms of the CIA and the foreign intelligence community, but not nearly so complete with the FBI.

In addition to strengthening the visa function and improving information sharing, there is the issue of immigration inspectors and clearing people at ports of entry. The changes that are being made to give those officers access to a lot more information are also very positive. What this means is that we're moving toward a system we've never had before, one of entry-exit procedures. Right now, we don't have an accurate picture of who's come here as a visitor, and who's left. That's really indefensible. So strengthening those procedures is very worthwhile and has been needed for a long time.

On the negative side, the administration has taken a set of actions that probably amount to selective enforcement, ones that are very much at the expense of due process rights. These particularly affect members of Middle Eastern and Arab communities here in the United States. Those arrests and interviews and enforcement actions to find people in illegal status have been arbitrary, and have not produced positive results for the war on terror. My hope is that these arrests and enforcement actions were initial, panicky responses and are now behind us.

Over the longer term, I believe that many of the information-sharing issues now facing immigration authorities can be worked out through technology and organizational imperatives to cooperate.

Another government proposal has been to make more information of the type you're referring to available to local police.

This administration takes the view that all of law enforcement should be in the business of enforcing immigration laws as a way of strengthening domestic security.

People concerned with civil liberties and immigrant communities strongly oppose such changes. In addition, among those most opposed are local law enforcement officers themselves, because they recognize that they can only do their job by having the trust and cooperation of the local communities they serve. They fear that if they're put in the position of enforcing immigration law, large sections of the community will be alienated, out of fear of immigration law and possible deportation.

This issue is by no means settled, despite the administration's strong position. If I had to predict, I would guess that there would probably be areas where local law enforcement will have narrowly defined new authority on immigration law enforcement. An example is access to databases that can tell them whether this or that person has possibly violated immigration laws. They would then follow up on cases of possible violations by communicating with immigration authorities. But local law enforcement would not be in the business of picking people up off the street.

Does all of this add up to a fundamentally different approach to immigration by the U.S.?

Actually, I don't think so. The single most remarkable development post-September 11, from an immigration standpoint, is that we had no debate or serious effort to shut down immigration. Most of us in this field expected that there would be a strong anti-immigrant response, and that did not happen. I'm very proud of us as a country for that. There were definitely some hate incidents and things that shouldn't have happened, but they were isolated - they did not develop into a wave of anti-immigration actions.

How do you see the political landscape for immigration policy changing in the coming year, given the upcoming elections and U.S. involvement in conflicts overseas? Are there major changes on the horizon?

No, I don't see major changes - but that also depends on how you define immigration policy. There is a great deal of activity connected to the ways in which our immigration laws are enforced and applied. However, these are all things that have, by and large, been in our statutes but haven't been given priority organizationally, or in terms of funding.

I think what we're going to see is this: Throughout the 1990s, we basically treated immigration as an economic phenomenon. We saw it through an economic lens, since it has played a very important role in successful productivity and growth of the economy in the last 10-15 years. What September 11 made us realize is that yes, immigration is a part of our success, but it also has a security dimension, and has to be seen through that lens as well. So the kinds of changes we're going to see will be almost completely focused on how to better balance our immigration laws in terms of economic and security concerns.

I did not see immigration play a role in the mid-term elections. It played a very strong role in the 1994 elections, and actually played some role in the presidential election in 2000, especially because of Bush's statements about Mexico. However, it's not playing a role now. That's not because there aren't real issues on the table - it's because our politics right now are totally absorbed with the terrorism issue and Iraq. These are pushing aside any high-level discussion about where we're going with immigration.

What are the implications of moving INS functions to the Department of Homeland Security?

If the INS is integrated into the Department of Homeland Security, many people worry that we'll look at immigration purely as though immigrants are a threat to us, as though they represent purely a security challenge.

I don't think this is the case, however, because there is a fear of the stranger that I've decided is a part of human nature. This will remain true whether the INS is in the Department of Homeland Security or the Justice Department.

What is relevant is how the work the INS does is managed. If the immigration function is properly organized, it will improve things. The Department of Homeland Security will be a priority, meaning that the immigration functions will get the kind of funding they need to do a job that is much bigger than they're able to handle at the present time. I think they will be higher on the list for the technology and talent that they need to be modern and well run and timely in their decisions. Timely decision-making is good for immigrants and security.

Immigration is an important national interest about which we have to have current information. We have to know who is here and whether they are complying with our laws so that we can defend against the tiny proportion of people who are a threat, while still reaping the benefits of the much larger flows of people who are a valuable resource for the United States.

You had hands-on experience with immigration policy during the period that the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) involving the U.S., Mexico, and Canada came into force. Given that agreement, as well as other factors, does Mexico merit special status in terms of U.S. policy?

That is a difficult question, because Mexico actually has a de facto special status. First, because it is our neighbor, and second, because the United States-Mexico border separates countries farther apart in terms of living standards than any other two neighboring countries in the world. So by definition, we have migration pressures. Third, there's a long history of both legal and illegal immigration from Mexico to the United States.

Thus, Mexico is a special case. The issue is whether or not we should have laws that formalize this situation, because we've taken the view that we should treat all countries equally. That was a hard-won principle. It was only introduced in 1965, and was a reflection of the civil rights movement applied to our immigration stance with countries abroad. It replaced what was a deeply discriminatory national origins quota system.

"There is no consensus in this country about the best way to enforce immigration laws."

I think we must craft a golden mean here - to maintain that basic commitment to equity around the world, and at the same time recognize the reality of our relationship with Mexico. At some point, we will have a new immigration policy with Mexico that will regulate the flow of workers into the country, while simultaneously allowing for permanent legal immigration according to rules similar for all countries. Nobody has been able to come up with the specifics of how to create that formula yet, but a new equation is needed.

There are currently discussions taking place in Washington about a pan-American free trade zone. How might such a zone affect U.S. immigration policy?

As our economies become more integrated, keeping a divide between immigration and labor on the one hand, and trade issues on the other, is artificial. That's what we've done with NAFTA. Most people acknowledge that the next steps in the trade debate must include how to incorporate migration, because they are closely connected.

We'd like to close by asking you for a more personal reflection. When you look at the current state of immigration policy, are there lessons that you brought away from your time at the INS, words of wisdom you might offer, things you wish for?

I would say that immigration policy is one of the toughest areas that we deal with as a country and government, because it touches virtually every aspect of our national life.

Even though we're a nation of immigrants and proud of that heritage, we're enormously ambivalent about it at any particular point in time. We love it in retrospect - telling stories about our parents and grandparents, and their immigrant roots. But we're wary of it in the present. Today, we're in a period of very high immigration and we're frightened of it. It turned out well before, but as a country we worry that this time immigration will undercut our social cohesion, overextend our education system, make us vulnerable to terror attacks.

That ambivalence is reflected in the pressures the INS faces. There is no consensus in this country about the best way to enforce immigration laws. That makes implementing immigration policy a very tough job. It also means that it is difficult to lead the INS, because the people are never quite sure whether they're supposed to be cops or social workers. They're asked to be both, or primarily one or the other, at different times.