New call goes out to split INS

Rep. Sensenbrenner pushes legislation and blasts agency's computer systems, management

Declaring that inadequate INS computer systems "are only part of the problem," the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee moved March 14 to speed House action on dismantling the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.) scheduled an April 9 hearing on legislation that would split the INS into two agencies. He scheduled a committee vote for April 10 and called for a House vote immediately thereafter.

"The time for action is now," said Sensenbrenner, declaring he was "dumbfounded" by INS' delivery of visas this week for two of the Sept. 11 terrorists.

On March 11, which marked six months since the attacks, the INS delivered student visa approval forms for Mohamed Atta and Marwan Al-Shehhi to a flight school the pair had attended in Florida.

The men had applied for student visas in 2000 so they could attend flight school. Atta's was approved in July 2001, Al-Shehhi's in August.

On March 12, the INS blamed its antiquated data collecting and processing system for the delays in delivering the visas. "The current process for collecting and tracking information on students is paper-based and relies on manual data entry into a computer system," agency officials said in a printed statement.

The INS is attempting to build a computer-based system.

Sensenbrenner agreed that "the INS' computer systems are woefully deficient" but said that was only part of the problem. "INS management, which has allowed the agency's technology and other problems to fester uncorrected for years is at the heart" of the problem, he said.

"If the INS cannot recognize two aliens who have been identified as participants in a widely publicized terrorist attack that has already occurred, it will be unable to intercept an alien who is planning a violent attack on the United States that has not yet happened," Sensenbrenner said in a letter to INS Commissioner James Ziglar.

During a Capitol Hill press conference, Sensenbrenner noted that six years ago, Congress ordered the INS to create a foreign student tracking system. "For six years they've delayed and delayed and delayed," he said.

In December, the House again passed legislation to improve foreign student tracking, but it stalled in the Senate. The House passed similar legislation again March 12.

Sensenbrenner's legislation would split the INS in two. One branch would handle immigration law enforcement while the other would provide immigration services, such as processing applications for visas.

The Bush administration has its own plan for subdividing INS. In November, Attorney General John Ashcroft announced a "wartime restructuring" of the Justice Department that included splitting the INS into two agencies — one to process immigrants and visitors and the other to protect the nation's borders.

As part of the reform, Ziglar said in November that the two new immigration agencies would acquire better information technology resources and improve information sharing.

But Sensenbrenner thinks a more thorough overhaul is needed, an aide said. "They've changed the name plates on the door before," but have failed to create an adequately functional immigration agency, he said.

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