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Got Money? Welcome to America
Published on Thursday, June 7, 2001 in the Miami Herald
Got Money? Welcome to America
by Marie Cocco
Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. And throw in $1,000.

It'll get you to the front of the line at the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

That is, if you are a foreign movie star, baseball player, soccer hero, scientist or high-ranking executive. Or a worker in an industry -- high-tech, for instance -- whose em- ployer is fed up with having its high-end imported labor wait along with those huddled masses.

Under a program aimed at speeding work-visa applications for some, the INS now is letting applicants in favored groups pay a $1,000 to guarantee action on a temporary work visa within 15 days. The ordinary wait is up to 90 days.

The money is supposed to be plowed into hiring more staff and making ``infrastructure improvements'' to serve everyone, the agency says.

There is so much logic to this idea that you could say it's a two-fer. It defies common sense and simultaneously offends the sensibilities.

Charging extra to fat cats in a hurry seems perfectly reasonable. The idea was hatched in the Clinton administration. Why not pick the wallets of the well-heeled and use the extra money to help everyone else?

Because this sleight-of-hand conceals the real deal: The INS is effectively without funds for its core mission of helping people with visas, green cards, citizenship applications and routine work that should be the stuff of effective government. Instead, it's effectively a mess.

Members of Congress, usually happy to extol the virtues of hard-striving immigrants, are all too stingy when it comes to funding the agency that's supposed to help them strive. While the INS budget has more than tripled since 1992, enforcement now has a budget five times that provided for other INS functions.

President Bush's administration would deliver more of the same: The INS is requesting 1,364 new staff members for next year -- all in enforcement -- and a $335 million increase in the enforcement budget. Most of the new positions are in border control. Some are allocated to detaining and removing illegal immigrants.

Just $45 million in new funds would go for immigration services under a backlog-reduction program already under way. The number of pending applications at the INS at the end of last year was 2.9 million, according to the Washington-based Center for Immigration Studies. That's up from 2.6 million at the end of 1999.

``The INS is doing triage,'' said Mike Krikorian, the group's executive director.

You can't really blame them. For years, Congress has heaped more responsibilities on the agency without giving it money to carry them out. Fees that immigrants pay for routine services are supposed to cover the expense, without direct government funding. They don't. Still, Congress refuses to pitch in more.

Even when application fees have been hiked in the recent past, according to Judy Golub, senior director of the American Immigration Lawyers' Association, money from them sometimes has been diverted to -- you guessed it -- enforcement programs such as detention.

Now comes the idea of allowing rich people and their corporate sponsors legally to grease palms for better service. Forget the romantic drivel about your ancestors stepping onto the dock with a few trinkets. Show us your greenbacks, please.

It's a discomfiting message for those seeking to work here because they believe it is the land of fairness and equality.

©2001 Newsday


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