On Thursday, February 11, 2021, at 10 a.m. California time, Ricardo Inzunza, PhD, former National Director of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, will discuss his new book, American Together, offering insights and experiences on immigration rights and policy and what we might expect from the Biden administration.
The year was 1988. George H. W. Bush had just won the Presidency. Despite any personal feelings I may have harbored regarding the failure of 1986 Legalization Program, my career in Washington, D.C. flourished under the Reagan administration. When H. W. Bush was elected President, I was carried over with the INS only this time, as the Deputy Commissioner. In this capacity, had overall responsibility for all of the agencies’ day to day activities. I was responsible for the actions (or inactions) of more than 40,000 immigration personnel world-wide.
I took the oath of office on my 51st birthday (every important thing in my life always seems to happen around my birthday in April), and I quickly realized two things. First, how familiar I was with most of the agency’s activities, and secondly, how little I knew about the type of decisions “top line” executives had to make almost daily. All the equal opportunity interviews when I was working for the Department of Defense, all those briefings about the available resource of people that we drew our staff from, my stint as the Deputy Director of the Asylum Policy and Review Unit (even though that posting didn’t last long), everything that happened in my life to that point, prepared me for this position (having grown up on the Mexican border in San Ysidro, California, helped too, with the border patrol chasing me, regularly seeing people coming across the border who were referred to by a number of pejorative terms, including Mexican). I understood the border and the “border mentality.” Because there is a border mentality, Americans in San Ysidro had more in common with the folks in Tijuana than they did with the folks in Sacramento, and the folks in Tijuana had more in common with those in San Ysidro than with those in Mexico City. My background helped me build compassion and empathy regarding the nature of the work to be done, and the people involved in it. I also believed that as a sovereign nation we had the right to decide who could enter the country, for what purpose, how long they could stay, and what could be done if people violated the conditions of their admittance. However, nothing in my life prepared me for the esoteric decisions immigration executives have to make every day. This is not your run of the mill immigration story. Here is a sample.
Vatican Nuns, a Divine Intervention
As I mentioned previously, I entered on duty as Deputy Commissioner on my birthday. Well, after the “griping and grinning” was over, I sat at my desk to admire my new office and to contemplate a pile of papers sitting right before me. Apparently, the recently departed Deputy left some work for me. I asked his secretary (my secretary had not signed on for duty yet) to brief me on what was required. She meticulously explained what was required for each document except one, which she clutched in her tight little hand until the very last moment. When she completed briefing me on the other documents, she handed it to me and said, “This one has a short fuse. The recommendation must be in the Attorney General’s office by COB (close of business) today.” She said, “Representatives from the offices of General Counsel and Detention and Deportation are in the conference room waiting to brief you on the matter.” She shot me a stern look that said, well, hop to it, buddy, and I heard myself say, “OK, I will join them.” Apparently, she wasn’t over the departure of the previous deputy yet.
After introductions and a few congratulatory comments, I was briefed. This was not a new case. It was first brought in 1983 but had languished in the court system for years. The case involved a removal order against four Cloistered Nuns from a Carmelite Monastery in Maryland. It had significant political ramifications and had reached the Office of the Attorney General, who was waiting for a recommendation about the political wisdom of staying the deportation order, I was stunned. Why on earth would we be trying to deport cloistered nuns? What could they have done in the monastery to merit deportation? A joke about a laundry man going to the monastery to pick up the nuns’ dirty habits pushed into my conscious mind. I did not think that would help in this case, so I kept it to myself.
The monastery’s roots were embedded in Maryland history, dating back almost two hundred years. Nuns from Belgium established the Carmelite Monastery in Charles County, Maryland, on July 21, 1790. It was the first community of religious women in the thirteen original colonies and the first Carmelite Monastery in North America. The monastery housed eighteen nuns and two postulants (aspiring members), women ranging in age from thirty-three to ninety-three. In this particular monastery the majority of the nuns were in the older-age range. The nuns’ ex-professions included dentistry, nursing, education, and law. The Vatican dispatched four nuns to the Monastery of Baltimore when three of the cloistered nuns passed in quick succession. Their job was to help out temporally until replacements could be recruited.
The spiritual focus of the Monastery was prayer. The Vatican Nuns were admitted for 120 days. They were assigned rooms and detailed to housekeeping duties in the monastery. When they were reaching the end of their stay, it was apparent that replacements would not arrive in time. The monastery applied for an extension of the nuns’ stay. They were summoned for an interview at the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) District office in Baltimore. During the interview, one of the nuns was asked how much she was paid for her services. She answered that she was not paid. Then she was asked how much rent she paid, and she answered that she did not pay rent. At that point, the interviewing officer, who was new to the job, for reasons known only to God, concluded that even though the nuns were not compensated monetarily, the fact that they were provided free room and board constituted payment-in-kind. So, their service was viewed as compensated work. Therefore, the nuns were working without authorization. This violated the conditions of their stay, so he cancelled their visas and placed them into deportation proceedings. They were released after posting appearance bonds and returned to the monastery.
Besides being new to the assignment, the officer must have been some type of disgruntled atheist. The case had implications beyond the monastery, and the Vatican mounted a vigorous defense. As it turns out, many nuns posted here are foreigners who provide their service without compensation. Over the years the case turned into a political football. At various times Republicans ran with it and at other times Democrats picked the case up and ran with it. Now, there was no place left to run. All this time the nuns remained at the Monastery. They became the replacements since other nuns could not be posted here until the work issue was resolved. Both parties were weary of the case and were looking for some type of divine intervention. Growing up I was taught you must always protect your mother (in my case foster mother), nuns, the church (Catholic of course), the Vatican, the Pope, and my younger siblings. If I understood the briefing correctly, the government was trying to remove 4 Catholic nuns, sent here from the Vatican, for temporally helping other nuns with housekeeping duties in a cloistered environment, while the Vatican tried to recruit replacements for the nuns who died. Our recommendation to the Attorney General was due by close of business, which in this case was 3 hours.
I was torn. The government was trying to hurt one of the classes I believed could do no harm. In 1989, Immigration Judges were assigned to the Executive Office of Immigration Review (EOIR), which was part of the Department of Justice and reported to the Attorney General. EOIR ordered the nuns deported. The only person who could save them this late in the game was the Attorney General. When I was briefed, I decided that the AG was looking for a way to help, but he needed political cover. Our recommendation had to put him in the most favorable light possible. In those days there was no set policy on who could revoke visas or place individuals into deportation proceedings. In some offices the authority was delegated down to the interviewing officer level, as it was in Baltimore. In others, it was not delegated below the supervisory level. In others, authority was not delegated below the District Director level. The recommendation we conjured up was for the Attorney General to establish a standardized policy for visa cancellation cases wherein authority to revoke a visa could not be delegated below the District Director level. In so doing, a “de novo” review of the decision would be in order. This would stay the deportation order. We also recommended that INS be required to send the Attorney General a report, within 60 days ensuring that all relevant adjudication policy was compliant with the new directive. Finally, I assured the Attorney General that I would personally oversee implementation of the policy directive. As a result, after a “de novo” review, the nun’s visas were re-instated and extended. Further, the record reflected that the sisters did not accrue “unlawful presence” in the United States. This would permit things to return to normal, the Vatican could win, the nuns could win, the Attorney General could win, but most importantly, America could win. I brought empathy, understanding, and all the lessons I had learned with me to my new posting, but apparently there was a side of immigration the public didn’t often see. Here is another example.
A Nigerian in an Iron Lung
A few months into the job, I received a call from the District Director of the Dallas INS office seeking guidance on a sensitive issue. He had received a disturbing call from the Administrator of the Baylor University Hospital. The Administrator alleged that the hospital had a long-term Nigerian patient who did not have an immigration status and they wanted INS to move against that patient. I said, “You don’t need my help for this, what’s up?” He said, “You don’t know the full story yet.” The patient, a former medical student, was struck by an indigent driver in 1982, which left him a quadriplegic. He had to be maintained in an iron lung at all times. As inhumane as it may appear, the hospital board believed it unfair for Texas taxpayers to continue to foot the bill for the poor man. They wanted him out of the hospital. The District Director asked me what he should do. I told him to sit tight. I would get back to him. I tasked the Associate Commissioner for Adjudications to come up with a plan. When we intend to deport anyone, we must obtain a travel document from the receiving country or we cannot proceed. The receiving country has to recognize the deportee as its own citizen before issuing a travel document. The adjudications branch called the Embassy of Nigeria to report the situation. The embassy accepted the fact that the student was, indeed, Nigerian, and they would receive him. However, they would need a bit of time to round up an iron lung. We agreed to put them in contact with Baylor Hospital to resolve that matter and to arrange for international aeromedical air transportation. I thought to myself, “Well done.”
Adjudications determined that we were obligated to put the individual into deportation proceedings since his student visa had expired years earlier. The student found pro bono legal services which argued before the immigration judge that deportation amounted to a death sentence. He needed more time with rehabilitative services to see if he could attend to his own bodily functions. Representatives from the hospital insisted he was never going to improve. The student’s attorney argued that he required a stable and reliable source of power for his iron lung. The Niger River provided the hydropower to the student’s hometown. But according to the student, even though the Niger is the longest river in Nigeria, it was a very unreliable source of hydropower. A representative for the Nigerian government refuted that argument. He stated Nigeria possessed a power grid fully capable of constantly powering an iron lung. The immigration judge ordered that the student be deported.
The Baylor hospital was notified and indicated they would help brief the Nigerian medical team that would attend to the student’s medical regimen and accompany him on his return to Nigeria. Baylor provided a list of supplies and equipment the receiving hospital would require. The embassy of Nigeria was notified so that a travel document could be issued for the student. The embassy was asked to provide particulars for the medical team that would accompany the student so visas could be prepared for them. All was in order. Problem solved right?
A week before the student was scheduled to be airlifted, the Nigerian Embassy called to notify me that they would be unable to provide a medical team, an air ambulance or an iron lung for the student. If we could provide those services and equipment they were still willing to receive their citizen. I told them to sit tight; I would get back to them. I notified Baylor. They did not think they could provide any of the support services or equipment required for the deportation. They ended the conversation by saying, “Deportation, in all of its manifestations, is a federal responsibility, but they would be glad to help us in any way possible.” Bill Clements, Texas Governor, wanted to resolve the problem quickly and discreetly, so he spoke to the Attorney General’s Chief of Staff. Neither of them wanted to see the story in the “Washington Post.” We fixed it. We bought the iron lung from Baylor, rented a medical team from Baylor to fly with the patient, borrowed an Air Force Air Ambulance, and off he went. We had to pull the expenses associated with this deportation from existing budgets. I was tempted to follow up to see how the student faired, but I was anxious about finding out.
Ricardo Inzunza is CEO of RIA International LTD and Ricardo has led several Congressional Delegations to the Peoples Republic of China, consulted extensively for the World Bank in East, West and South Africa, and served as a business consultant to the Millennium Challenge Corporation and the Peoples Republic of China. Ricardo served as the Deputy Director of the Asylum Policy and Review Unit for the Department of Justice among other positions and advised the Attorney General on all matters relating to asylum policy and provided guidance to the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) under President Ronald Reagan, who also appointed Ricardo to the positions of Director, Military Equal Opportunity Programs for the Department of Defense, and Director of the Division of Consumer Affairs for the U.S. Department of Energy. He was appointed as Deputy Commissioner of the former INS by President H. W. Bush.