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A simple mistake by the INS?

SHARE A simple mistake by the INS?

About four or five years ago, an aide to Vice President Al Gore sent him an e-mail that said he was concerned the Immigration and Naturalization Service would have trouble swearing in 1 million new citizens by Election Day. According to the Scripps Howard News Service, the e-mail urged Gore to appeal directly to the INS commissioner, a Clinton appointee, for help.

"We'll explore it. Thanks." Gore said in a return e-mail.

Not long after, the INS went at a pell-mell pace, processing more than 180,000 naturalization applications without proper FBI fingerprint analyses. Thousands more were approved without a proper language test. Many of the new citizens, it turns out, had violent criminal histories that should have prevented them from becoming Americans. In all, however, the INS reached its goal of processing 1 million new citizens before the fall, a program the Clinton administration called Citizenship USA.

Now the Justice Department has released a report that acknowledges some Gore staff members "hoped for a political benefit," from the campaign. But the report concludes political pressure had nothing to do with the mistakes. That conclusion seems a bit dubious, which is why the members of Congress who want to hold hearings into the matter are justified.

Citizenship is not something to treat lightly, particularly at a time when the INS is struggling to keep illegal immigrants from crossing borders in part to reduce the flow of drugs and the introduction of criminals into the country. Nor should the ability of the executive branch to influence a government agency for political purposes be taken lightly. Even if the administration was pressuring the agency to expedite new citizens who were likely to vote for Democrats, the INS has no excuse for violating its own carefully constructed policies.

The goal of swearing in 1 million new citizens was a strange one from the beginning. It was announced as a way to clear a long backlog of applications, but the INS did not have the capacity to do such a thing in such a short amount of time. It still doesn't today. The only hope was to either abandon the goal or to cut vital corners.

But why would anyone want to cut corners that could affect national security? The only logical answer is that outside pressure of some sort came to bear.

Perhaps this is a case where the general wishes of a high-level official were blown out of proportion at a lower level. After all, 1 million new voters, spread nationwide, wouldn't have much of a direct effect on an election. But the American people deserve to know the truth, which is why a hearing would be helpful.