WASHINGTON -- Accountants at the Immigration and Naturalization Service have won agreements over the past few weeks to collect at least $5.6 million in fees that the agency had not bothered to recover before, for lack of accounting clerks.
Airlines take a $6 fee from each arriving international passenger, collected as part of the ticket price. They are supposed to turn that money over to the INS, which uses it to pay for its inspection programs.
But the Justice Department learned this year that the agency was failing to collect the fees from 22 airlines and six cruise lines -- a loss of as much as $23 million a year, while the agency's obligations were about $60 million greater than its projected income.
Asked about that last summer, Kenneth Rath, the agency's chief financial officer, complained that he did not have enough accountants. "There are only two people down there monitoring this," he said.
In September, the New York Times published a series of articles about the immigration service's management problems, including the failure to collect this money.
In the past few months, Frederic I. Marks, director of debt collectionand cash management for the INS, has added two accountants to his staff, and said, "We're taking an aggressive role to collect these fees."
In November his office won agreement from Jamaica's national airline to pay the immigration service $4.2 million over the next four years. The carrier has already turned over $1 million. All the money is fee receipts that were collected over the past several years and should have been remitted before.
This fall his office also collected $901,546 from "a Pacific Asian national carrier" that the agency declined to identify, including $88,383 in interest, and smaller amounts from several other carriers.
Mr. Marks' office is negotiating with three other airlines that together owe $3.7 million in fees. The agency is threatening to sue if the airlines do not pay.
"These things can't be changed overnight. It takes time," he said.
The immigration service, meanwhile, has been criticized on another front -- failure to collect fines from airlines for carrying illegal immigrants into the United States.
A Justice Department report shows that the agency is failing to collect as much as $12.3 million a year in such fines, which total $3,000 for each illegal immigrant.