Lee Fjelstad, vice president of Verbal Judo, trains Portland INS inspectors. Photo by Motoya Nakamura/The Oregonian.

The U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service sealed its distinction as a clueless bureaucracy last March when its contractor mailed visa confirmations for two dead September 11 hijackers. President Bush called the action an inexcusable blunder. Outrage over the incident contributed to an overwhelming House vote to abolish the INS and split its functions between two bureaus.

But the agency’s slipshod, abusive nature wasn’t so glaring two years before, when reporter Julie Sullivan and I examined mistreatment of foreigners by INS officers in Portland, Oregon. Were these isolated incidents, we wondered, or did vindictive enforcement and bureaucratic bungling typify the agency’s work?

Working with two other reporters, we answered that question in a six-part series that exposed INS abuses of power. The Oregonian is a regional newspaper, but we parlayed the local story into a national investigation. Amanda Bennett, our editor, set demanding standards of evidence for our reporting. But the frustrations we had as reporters in dealing with the INS paled in comparison to the agonies inflicted by the agency on foreigners who lacked constitutional protection.

U.S. Representative Janice Schakowsky, a Democrat from Illinois, told us that people complained more about the agency than anything else. “The INS is like an onion,” she said. “The more you peel it away, the more you cry.”

Finding INS Mistreatment

My first tip about INS mistreatment came in April 2000 from a local exporter who said immigration inspectors were citing visa technicalities to reject foreigners—often Asian businessmen and technicians—arriving at Portland International Airport. It turned out that inspectors routinely made a rejected foreigner take the next flight back to Japan or South Korea. But if the return flight had already departed by the time the paperwork was completed, the INS sent horrified foreigners in handcuffs to the local county jail.

Earlier, Julie Sullivan had exposed the plight of a Chinese girl held by the INS in a county jail for weeks after gaining political asylum. Jailers referred to the 15 year old, held with five other Chinese teenagers, as “the girl who cries.”

Fear of the INS ran so deep among victims of its harsh enforcement that we often had trouble finding people who would talk on the record. Acting on a reader’s tip, I asked a moonlighting South Korean journalist to track down a Korean man who had been rejected at the airport. Kong Hee-joon, 26, had flown to Portland to train computer technicians. He found himself handcuffed, jailed for two nights, unable to contact his company or a lawyer, and then sent home. “Just because one document was missing,” Kong said, “they treated me as a serious criminal.”

The stories got worse. INS inspectors intercepted a Chinese businesswoman at the airport, strip-searched her, and jailed her for two nights before deciding her passport was legitimate. INS officers arrested the German wife of an American citizen after her visa expired: She was jailed, stripsearched, and deported to Germany without her breastfeeding daughter.

For every abusive INS officer we found we met others who labored conscientiously in an intractable system. Overworked agency employees, constrained by a harsh Immigration Act passed by Congress in 1996, were swamped by the sheer crush of people trying to get into the United States.

In a previous era, The Oregonian would have been content to focus its resources on news coverage of these daily developments, as the newspaper did leading up to the departure of Oregon’s INS director. But in her quest to improve our regional newspaper, Sandy Rowe, the paper’s editor, set no geographic limits on our reporting of this story. By the time the state’s top INS official announced in September 2000 that he would quit, Amanda Bennett, then managing editor in charge of projects, had launched us on a full probe of INS practices. We asked two investigative reporters, Kim Christensen and Brent Walth, to join us in reporting this story from a national perspective.

“The Press Paid Little Attention When the Immigration Act Was Passed”
– Anthony Lewis
With four reporters now on board, we met with Bennett and Managing Editor Jack Hart to plan how we’d go about telling this story. Potential topics seemed vast and amorphous. Journalists we admired, notably then-New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis had long reported and written eloquently on the INS. And we didn’t want to do the predictable “on the border” story about the agency.

We shared what we’d learned so far and agreed on the question that would ground our investigation: How does the INS treat people?

Chinese businesswoman Guo Liming describes being jailed for two nights and strip-searched by immigration officials in Portland, Oregon, who thought her passport was doctored. Guo and Hsieh Tsuhi, right, her fiancé and business partner, resumed their trip. Photo by Motoya Nakamura/The Oregonian.

Organizing the Investigation

After extensive reporting that built on our daily coverage, we broke our subjects into categories, such as bungling, corruption, secret prisons, and internal agency culture. We stated—for our own use—the strongest conclusion that we thought we could prove in each area. For example:

  • The INS runs a secret, abusive prison system.
  • The INS has fostered corruption in its ranks.
  • The INS wrecks families.
  • The INS has created an internal culture that has tolerated racism and abuse.

Then, during a later meeting, the four of us projected these statements onto a conference room screen. We treated each finding as a work in progress. Even though we anticipated that additional reporting would bear them out, we were resolved to search as well for contradictory evidence. In biased or inexperienced hands, driving toward conclusions in this fashion would be irresponsible. But we set rigorous standards of proof and basic rules of the road:

  • We would publish only on-therecord material from primary sources, not from interest groups.
  • We would find at least three examples for every point.
  • We would focus on U.S. regions away from the borders where abuse would seem more likely.
  • We would gather political opinion from both Republicans and Democrats, also by interviewing former INS officials from as many administrations as possible.
  • We would compile clear statistical evidence.
  • We would challenge each example and fact.
  • We would probe the agency’s conduct, not the immigration issue as a whole.
  • If, by the publication date in December, we fell short of any conclusion, we would back down to a statement that reflected our findings.

Our reporting team came to this project with diverse experience, ranging from stints in The Oregonian’s Washington, D.C. and Tokyo bureaus to writing books and breaking national investigative stories. Each of us gravitated toward the one or two topics we chose and led the writing on those subjects. Brent Walth kept us organized. Julie Sullivan fought the temptation to continue breaking daily stories. Kim Christensen wove the findings into a powerful lead story. Working on a tight deadline, we shared all that we found, learned from one another, and never had time to squabble.

As we reported the story, we assigned each category a jointly accessible file in the newsroom computer system. Each of us poured notes, documents, Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, and leads into these files. Periodically, we met to assess what we had, and what we needed, in each area.

I focused on the internal culture of the INS, and my reporting uncovered a world of racism, sexism and questionable conduct. Portland officers jokingly tossed condoms into mailboxes of colleagues who were preparing to escort deportees abroad. This practice stopped only when their supervisor warned them that hiring prostitutes during work trips was unprofessional. A Cuban-American man described Anglo managers, who froze him out of an entry-level Vermont border-inspector job, as standing by while a coworker called him “Havana Club” and “poster boy” for affirmative action.

Claudia Young, center, is met by her husband and child. She was separated from her family after being deported by the INS and then allowed to return. Photo by Ross William Hamilton/The Oregonian.

Bringing the INS Reporting to the Public

I turned in a story that I thought was compelling. It might have been, but Bennett pressed me to go further and determine whether the INS culture was any worse than that of other federal agencies. I interviewed Congressional overseers, former top Justice Department officials and inspectors general, law professors and judges. I compared numbers of internal investigations in the INS to those in other agencies. Earlier I had sent FOIA requests to every INS district in the nation to determine how line officers were evaluated.

Finally, with this additional reporting setting the context, the story passed muster.

We did all we could to get top INS agency officials to respond to our findings. But INS Commissioner Doris Meissner, who resigned three weeks before we went to press, never spoke to us. Only by showering interview requests on then-Attorney General Janet Reno, who oversaw the INS, were we granted last-minute marathon interviews with top agency managers. Many of their answers were vague and off-point. So Bennett played the role of INS defender as she tried to tear apart each story and conclusion.

Our stories generated extensive reaction from readers, members of Congress, interest groups, and immigration lawyers, but never a word from the agency itself. We expected to receive a rebuttal from the INS and were prepared to publish whatever the agency had to say.

Given our findings, none of us was surprised by the INS blunders and misplaced priorities that surfaced after the September 11 attacks. It turns out that while inspectors threw the book at families and businesspeople, the doors stood open for potential terrorists.

The Oregonian has continued to write about the agency. We’ve broken stories on the dysfunctional student visa system. We covered the Portland police department’s initial refusal to question foreigners from countries linked to terrorism. We’ve watched the Bush administration and Congress grapple with restructuring the INS, an entity that has endured dozens of studies, commissions and reorganizations in almost 70 years of operation. We see milk crates stuffed with immigration files stack up in corridors of swamped INS service centers. We watch inspectors try to run security checks using an antiquated computer system. We watch burned-out INS officers quitting for higher-paid jobs as sky marshals.

We’ve seen some improvements. James Ziglar, President Bush’s INS commissioner, tried to reform the agency’s structure and culture. The Cuban-American inspector who was fired in Vermont recently won his job back—in Miami. But our conclusion to date is that the agency is more inept and less efficient than ever. Ziglar’s reforms have been buried under a stream of urgent orders to boost security. Congress has poured nearly one billion more dollars into the agency, which struggles to stay Claudia Young, center, is met by her husband and child. She was separated from her family after being deported by the INS and then allowed to return. Photo by Ross William Hamilton/The Oregonian. ahead of mass defections of borderpatrol agents. There are few signs that Americans are any safer today on account of INS efforts.

Now Congress and the Bush administration are preparing to dismantle the agency, putting its 35,000 employees into the new Homeland Security Department. The main Capitol Hill controversy over this reorganization has been neither boosting security nor improving processing of green cards and other benefits the agency administers, services that might well be neglected in the Homeland shuffle. Instead lawmakers have disputed whether INS employees should retain union representation.

The union issue is a sideshow in many respects, except that it does have significance for the work we do as journalists. We found that INS workers, who generally feared losing their jobs if they spoke with reporters, were able to do so if they held union-officer positions, however low in rank. In contrast, sky marshals, for example, are far less accessible to reporters, not only due to security prohibitions but also because of their lack of union cover.

As the INS prepares to vanish with two dozen federal agencies into the new Homeland department, its functions will likely become even more opaque. That’s unfortunate as we enter an era in which immigration enforcement should be subject to more, not less, public scrutiny.

Richard Read, a 1997 Nieman Fellow and The Oregonian’s senior writer for international affairs, won the 1999 Pulitzer Prize for explanatory reporting. The INS series, “Liberty’s Heavy Hand,” which won the 2001 Pulitzer for public service, is posted at www.pulitzer.org/year/ 2001/public-service/works.

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