INS split may delay tech upgrades

The 405-to-9 House vote to split the Immigration and Naturalization Service is likely to mean delays in some of the technology modernizations planned for the troubled agency, said the president of a major technology association.

Splitting the INS into two agencies, as the House of Representatives voted to do April 25, probably will slow progress the agency was just beginning to make under an INS overhaul planned by the Bush administration, said Harris Miller, president of the Information Technology Association of America.

But an INS spokesman said one key technology project — a system for tracking foreign students — is so close to startup that it is likely to proceed unaffected. Colleges are expected to begin using the automated system in July, said spokesman Bill Strassberger.

The overwhelming support in the House for dividing the INS prompted a last-minute shift in policy by the Bush administration. Until a day before the vote, the administration favored its own, less aggressive INS reform plan.

The House plan pushed by Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.) would split the INS into two agencies — one to manage immigration law enforcement and the other to handle immigration services, such as applications for citizenship, work permits and changes in visa status.

A similar plan is working its way through the Senate and is expected to pass.

Splitting the INS into two agencies probably will slow modernization "in the short term," Miller said. "In the long term, things will be better."

The ITAA has been working with the INS to develop ways the agency can link its disparate databases so they can communicate with one another.

The INS also is under congressional orders to create an automated entry/exit system to keep track of foreign visitors. Other projects include trying to develop visas, passports and other documents that use biometric identification; improving the agency's border guarding capabilities with cameras and sensors; and modernizing computer systems used for immigration services.

In recent weeks INS Commissioner James Ziglar had begun "moving at a relatively rapid pace" on some of the technology modernization projects, Miller said. But sweeping reorganization of the agency is likely to slow that progress, he said.

On April 17, Ziglar announced that among other reforms, he intended to hire a chief information officer, whose job would be "marshaling our information systems to provide accurate, up-to-date data to both the enforcement and services bureaus and to make sure they are able to share information when necessary."

The search for a CIO will go on, Strassberger said.

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