House proposal would reorganize INS

Declaring it "the most dysfunctional agency in the federal government," Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.) has introduced legislation to split the Immigration and Naturalization Service in two.

One branch would handle immigration law enforcement, while another would provide immigration services, such as processing applications for visas.

The INS, which has a history of poor management and inept performance, is blamed for failing to adequately monitor the 19 individuals who hijacked four airliners and used them in terrorist activity Sept. 11.

Thirteen of the hijackers were in the United States on tourist, business or student visas, and at least three remained illegally after their visas expired.

The Bush administration has joined the call for reform. In a Nov. 8 address, Attorney General John Ashcroft said he intends to overhaul the INS "consistent with the president's goal of separating the function of serving and the function of enforcing."

A restructured INS will focus on preventing terrorists from entering the country, Ashcroft said. A detailed plan is expected soon, he added.

To be effective, any reform will have to address the agency's considerable computer problems. More than a decade ago, congressional investigators warned that "INS managers and field officials did not have adequate, reliable and timely information to effectively carry out the service's mission."

And as recently as October, Justice Department Inspector General Glenn Fine told the House Judiciary Committee that "numerous" inspector general reviews "have questioned the reliability of the INS' information technology systems and the accuracy of the data produced by them."

According to Sensenbrenner, there are about 250,000 illegal aliens in the United States who have been ordered deported but cannot be found by the INS.

The events of Sept. 11 made clear "the urgent need for a bill to restructure the Immigration and Naturalization Service," said Sensenbrenner, who is chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. Rep. George Gekas (R-Pa.) cosponsored the legislation.

Inability to keep track of aliens is only part of the problem. The INS' ability to process applications for visas and permanent resident "green cards" is crippled by inadequate computer systems.

"Getting a green card application adjudicated can take up to two years. Furthermore, processing of immigration applications is inconsistent throughout the country," Sensenbrenner said Nov. 6.

In an October report, the General Accounting Office cited "automation problems as the No. 1 factor affecting INS' ability to process applications in a timely manner."

Sensenbrenner's bill includes a provision that would require the INS to establish a Web-based system that permits visa seekers to check the status of their applications online. The online service should reduce the number of people waiting in line at district offices, reduce the number of phone calls and prevent the loss of case files, Sensenbrenner said.

The key provision in the bill, however, is to abolish the existing INS, replacing it with an Agency for Immigration Affairs to be led by a new associate attorney general for immigration affairs.

The agency would oversee two bureaus, the Bureau of Immigration Services and Adjudications and the Bureau of Immigration Enforcement, which would process immigration requests and enforce immigration laws, respectively.

Splitting the INS is not a new idea. Studies and legislation for dividing the agency date at least to the late 1970s, said Harris Miller, president of the Information Technology Association of America and a former congressional staffer who specialized in immigration issues.

But as part of the effort to beef up homeland defense, "there is huge pressure" from the administration for federal agencies to improve their ability to share information. "Immigration is one of the top areas where the federal government must do a better job," Miller said.

However, Fine, Justice's IG, said last month that breaking up the INS could create "complex administrative issues such as the need to share information technology systems."


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