by Robert Herold

Some years back, when we had a professional ballet company in town, a young dancer, newly arrived from Mexico, was preparing for his first performance. Two humorless men made their way up the stairs to the studio above Berg's Shoes. They approached a staff member and inquired about the dancer, asking for his papers. It was all a very serious matter to these special agents from the Immigration and Naturalization Service. No doubt the security of our republic was at risk.

Turns out that the young man's work permit or green card had not yet arrived. Everything had been handled appropriately enough, but the paperwork was caught in the system. It was "in process." The company needed the dancer to begin rehearsal and had brought the dancer in before the paperwork had cleared.

During those years, the dancers hung out at the Great Harvest Bakery below the studio. Seems they had been talking among themselves about the red tape problem. An eavesdropper, for some small-minded reason, passed along the "tip" to the INS.

The dancer was forced to leave the country. At that time the company manager (my wife, Barre) got in touch with the one person in town whose every phone call would be answered, Tom Foley. Rep. Foley's office intervened, and the young man returned to Spokane just in time for his performance.

Now, keep in mind, this kid had no record, he'd done nothing criminal, he'd done nothing even to attract attention. But the INS agents found the time and had the interest to swoop down on him and the company.

I recalled the annoying episode of the Spokane Ballet dancer and the INS last week when I pondered the case of the young girl killed when a Saudi national drove his car at more than 70 miles per hour through a traffic light on Francis -- some 22 seconds after the light had turned red.

Mr. Al Jazairy, unlike that young Mexican dancer, was no stranger to legal troubles. He had been cited more than a dozen times for moving violations -- and those violations weren't his only infractions.

If the INS can't even track a foreigner who displays a long record of civic disregard, what chance does it have against terrorists?

I put a call into the police department. How is it that Al Jazairy was out on the road? I received no answer, except the usual: lack of resources. Why didn't the INS know about this guy? Good question, thought the police spokesman. He suggested that I take that question to the source.

I drove down to the INS office only to be told that no one in Spokane was authorized to say anything about, well, anything. I was given a number in Olympia, where I made some interesting discoveries:

* The INS is severely understaffed. Right now, in Washington State, even with new authorizations, almost 200 inspector positions remain unfilled. (For the uninitiated, "inspectors" police the border crossings.)

* If this isn't bad enough, the number of "special agents" around the country is so low that most states don't see more than a few dozen at any time. (Special agents perform internal investigations.)

I wondered out loud why INS agents found the time to pursue an innocent dancer while ignoring a repeatedly reckless driver. The reply I received is mind-boggling. Seems that INS agents are so few in number that they can only work on tips. In the case of the dancer, they had a tip -- the eavesdropped conversation as it had been passed along.

And the traffic terrorist? No tip, no investigation.

Simple as that. I can see Kafka smiling and saying, "I told you so."

But Al Jazairy was here as a student. Don't colleges and universities have some oversight responsibility? Not at present, even though negotiations are well down the road. In the future, schools will indeed play an oversight role.

Okay, let's review: no investigations without tips. (With a tip, however, apparently no investigation is too trivial to pursue.) No help from the schools. How about the police? Don't the police file reports with the INS?

Nope. According to the INS, police aren't to report on any foreign national unless the offense falls into the "deportable" category. All of Al Jazairy's prior offenses were misdemeanors and thus weren't reported.

But surely, I stammer, there's a distinction between a single moving violation and a long list of moving violations.

Evidently, either the police don't see that distinction, or else they fear that, in cases of long-term civic disregard like Al Jazairy's, civil libertarians would be all over them for "racial profiling" and "harassment."

And so now, a girl's life has tragically ended, and the bureaucracies charged with protecting her have tidy, justifiable and even understandable explanations -- understandable, that is, if you're mired in process and don't bother with actual results.

Making certain that rogues like Al Jazairy are tagged, wrapped up and tossed has always been a no-brainer, even before 9/11. Yet now, nearly a year later, our national bureaucracies are having obvious difficulties even in dealing with a single traffic terrorist.

If all they can do is make phone referrals and issue disclaimers, what recourse do we have when it comes to defending ourselves against entire organizations full of terrorists?

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About The Author

Robert Herold

Robert Herold is a retired professor of public administration and political science at both Eastern Washington University and Gonzaga University. Robert Herold's collection of Inlander columns dating back to 1995, Robert's Rules, is available at Auntie's.