INS displays IT to fight dismantling

Amid calls to dissolve the agency and merge its functions into other agencies the Immigration and Naturalization Service last week showed off its technological muscle to illustrate that enforcing immigration laws and providing benefits and services to newcomers are virtually inseparable.

A congressionally appointed immigration-reform commission last week formally recommended dismantling INS suggesting leaving border patrol and enforcement functions with the Justice Department and transferring INS services functions to the State Department. The Senate Judiciary Committee's Subcommittee on Immigration is expected to consider overhauling INS later this month.

In an attempt to show the recommendations have no merit INS commissioner Doris Meissner and agency staff members went to the Capitol to display numerous computer systems the agency uses to fight illegal immigration and to provide immigrants services. Systems included those that aid border and law enforcement provide services to immigrants and process information that could be used for law enforcement and providing services.

"What you see here today is the technology through which we are building a new INS " Meissner said. "It is an INS that is increasingly able to carry out both its enforcement and service missions by deploying state-of-the-art equipment and by integrating information. This combination - enforcement and service - is necessary in order to properly manage the nation's immigration system."

INS computer systems can provide enforcement workers with information they can use to conduct background checks and verify identities while also giving INS staff information to make sure that only eligible immigrants get benefits an INS spokeswoman said. "What we're showing through our technology story is that no there isn't an institutional conflict [between enforcement and services] " she said. "If you split up the agency you can't have that integration."

Richard Estrada associate editor of The Dallas Morning News editorial page and a member of the congressionally appointed Commission on Immigration Reform did not buy INS' argument. "By pointing to technological advances as a reason for assuming that a long and serious history of failure and mission overload is going to be overcome I think they may in fact be grasping at straws " he said.

Estrada said he wants to do what makes "the most sense" and says information can still be shared if INS functions are merged into other agencies. "The current [immigration] system was never planned " he said. "It has occurred by accretion slowly over time." He added that immigration functions were passed to DOJ around the time of World War II to screen foreigners who could present a national security threat.

Dismantling the INS may be a "quick-fix shell game " said Scipio Garling director of research for the Federation for American Immigration Reform in Washington D.C. "There's nothing wrong with INS' role. The problems lie with the immigration laws themselves and our political willingness to do what is required to enforce those laws."Garling said too many immigrants - roughly a million a year - are being allowed into the country and many of those legal immigrants help illegal immigrants get across the border.

Technology just may be the key for a more effective INS Garling said. "The further technology advances the more it's clear that [INS] could [hold the line on immigration] if they wanted to " he said. "Technology unfortunately leaves them less and less of a choice. It becomes obvious to the public that these things can be done."

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