Born September 14, 1935, in Muncie, Indiana, Gene McNary attended public schools in his hometown. He earned a B.S. in finance in 1957 and his law degree in 1960 from Indiana University. McNary served in the U.S. Army Reserve from 1960 to 1966 and went on active duty at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri.
McNary was admitted to both the Indiana and Missouri Bars. After two years in private law practice as an associate with Lashly, Lashly and Miller in St. Louis, Missouri, he became Assistant Public Defender for St. Louis County in 1963. He was elected as St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney for two terms beginning 1967, and was elected four times to St. Louis County Chief Executive, from 1975 to 1989. McNary also ran for a Senate seat on the Republican ticket in 1980.
President George H. W. Bush nominated McNary for INS Commissioner in August 1989. The Senate unanimously confirmed his appointment on October 24, 1989, and McNary was sworn in two days later. He brought extensive experience in criminal law and government administration to his post, but McNary lacked a background in immigration law enforcement. Accordingly, he worked to educate himself on the issues, seeking dialogue with immigration stakeholders and experts. McNary also traveled to domestic and foreign field offices to observe agency operations firsthand.
As Commissioner, McNary worked to increase the efficiency of agency operations and centralize INS management, budget controls, and policymaking at Headquarters. He also sought to balance effective enforcement of immigration laws with compassion. McNary-era initiatives included the implementation of new regulations to govern asylum processing and introduction of new technologies and innovations to streamline agency operations, increasing border control and reducing backlogs in processing benefits and lines at ports of entry.
During McNary’s tenure, INS grew in strength from 15,000 to 18,000 employees and the Immigration Act of 1990 brought comprehensive immigration reform. The federal Immigration Service also marked its 100th anniversary, celebrating “A Century of Service to a Nation of Immigrants.”
After leaving INS, McNary returned to St. Louis and resumed private law practice. He remained active in state and local politics and later returned to public service in the Missouri state government.
Compiled from the following sources:
“Introducing Commissioner Gene McNary,” Commissioner’s Communique, Vol. 12 No. 5 (Oct. 1989): 1; “Congressional Report Finds Skepticism for Reorganization Efforts at INS,” Interpreter Releases, Vol. 68, No. 19 (May 20 1991): 585-8; INS, “The McNary Record,” (unpublished) in McNary, Gene, vertical file at USCIS History Office and Library.