INS: Splitting agency would harm info tech

A bill that would remove border control duties from the Immigration and Naturalization Service and place them in a new agency is speeding its way through Congress. But some observers say the bill could undo vital information links the federal government uses to process immigrants.

Rep. Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) last month introduced a bill to divest INS of its duties to fight illegal immigration by placing those responsibilities in a new agency called the Bureau of Enforcement and Border Affairs, which would be part of the Justice Department. The bill, H.R. 4264, would leave the INS with the responsibility to naturalize immigrants and grant benefits to legal immigrants.

"The INS is an agency that despite the best of intentions, is designed to fail," Rogers said in a prepared statement. "The agency has conflicting missions, and, in the words of the Commission on Immigration Reform, it is on 'mission overload.' "

Two Missions?

At issue is INS' dual missions of enforcing the U.S. borders with Canada and Mexico and granting immigrant benefits. Critics argue that the two missions conflict because INS must play the role of tough defender of the nation's borders while also playing the role of the friendly host who naturalizes legal immigrants.

The two roles, critics say, are often played out against a backdrop of election-year political pressure, in which defending borders helps those candidates from border states and naturalizing more citizens tends to help other candidates.

But INS officials and other immigration experts say separating the enforcement mission from the services mission could imperil the sharing of data that INS officials use to support border control efforts, naturalize citizens and grant benefits.

In a technology exposition for congressmen and their staffs last year, INS officials highlighted technology as an example of how the two functions of enforcement and services were complementary. For example, INS computer systems provide enforcement workers with information they use to conduct background checks and verify identities while also giving other INS staff members information to make sure that only eligible immigrants receive benefits.

"The problem with the approach is that it doesn't integrate the functions until you get to the attorney general, and the attorney general realistically will not have the time for coordinating those functions on a day-to-day basis as those functions require," said Julie Anbender, acting director of public affairs at INS. "We don't believe that the technology systems and the recordkeeping functions are as integrated as they need to be in the Rogers proposal."

The bill has cleared the House Subcommittee on Immigration and Claims and now is in the House Judiciary Committee. But no similar measure has been introduced in the Senate.

The bill already has drawn sharp criticism from advocates of tough immigration policy such as the Federation for American Immigration Reform.

K.C. McAlpin, deputy director of FAIR, said the bill will not necessarily solve the problem of poor enforcement of immigration laws. "We don't really buy this idea that there's a dual mission for INS," he said. "It's one integrated mission."

Sharing of Information

McAlpin said INS, as part of its responsibility to determine who should be granted citizenship, needs information on people who try to enter the country illegally. "You can't know if somebody is deserving of becoming a legal immigrant, say, if they've been arrested five times for trying to break our immigration laws," he said.

But Susan Zimmerman, spokeswoman for Rogers, said the new bureau would not necessarily make sharing of such information more difficult. "The bill would give the [Justice Department] the responsibility for ensuring that the INS and the [bureau] coordinate and share information," she said. "Rogers for quite some time has preached this idea of there needing to be seamless communication between all our law enforcement agencies.... He recognizes that there is data, that there will need to be a way to coordinate and share that information."

Language in the bill authorizes the attorney general to fund and/or coordinate shared support functions for the new bureau and INS. "Such shared support functions may include information resources management, human resources and training, security, records and forms management, equal-opportunity activities, facilities and procurement administration, and budgeting." According to the bill, "The attorney general shall maintain oversight and control over the shared computer databases and systems and records management."

Making a transition to that level of sharing between INS and the new bureau may be cumbersome, but Richard Estrada, a member of the bipartisan Commission on Immigration Reform, which recently dissolved after issuing a final report that recommended breaking up INS' functions, said the added work would be worth it.

"I think it certainly does make sense to move in this direction as rapidly as possible," said Estrada, who is associate editor of The Dallas Morning News editorial page. "It is worth the pain because any time that you can bring clarity and focus to the mission of an agency, then the American people are better served."

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