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RESPONSE TO TERROR

INS Would Split in 2 Under Bush's Plan

Immigration: Bureaus for policing and services are sought. Ashcroft says Sept. 11 proved the need for a better shield against foreign criminals.

November 15, 2001|JONATHAN PETERSON and PATRICK J. McDONNELL | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — The Bush administration unveiled a major overhaul Wednesday of the Immigration and Naturalization Service designed to keep terrorists from entering the country while still welcoming lawful immigrants and visitors.

The plan, which would split the agency's law enforcement and service operations into separate bureaus, culminates years of debate on breaking up the INS and comes amid widespread concerns that the agency is not up to the task of protecting the nation from foreign criminals.

The criticisms, while smoldering for years, intensified in the highly charged atmosphere following the terrorist strikes, in which at least four of the suspected airline hijackers appear to have been in the country illegally and no definitive records have been found for six others.

"The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 underscored in the most painful way for Americans that we need better control over individuals coming to our shores from other nations," Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft said at a news conference. Noting that three of his grandparents migrated to the United States, he added: "We remain a nation committed to welcoming America's friends from abroad, but we have a new determination not to see our welcome abused by America's enemies."

Under the plan, the agency would separate its roles as police officer and service provider. To improve law enforcement, the INS will establish a Bureau of Immigration Enforcement, combining the Border Patrol, investigation, inspection and intelligence operations, officials said. Separately, it will create a Bureau of Immigration Services for processing applications for permanent residence, political asylum, work permits, citizenship and other benefits.

INS district and regional offices struggle to fulfill all of those missions, officials said Wednesday. The hodgepodge of duties has left officials with a muddled mission and an inefficient chain of command, leading to red-tape snafus and an often-frustrated public.

Complicating matters, the INS has scrambled to keep up with a historic wave of immigration and helter-skelter growth of its own organization. The agency's $4.8-billion budget represents a 220% increase from 1993, while its work force has almost doubled, to 34,000 from 18,000. Although the terrorist attacks have skewed the national debate toward issues of security, the INS record of serving lawful immigrants has been a longtime source of complaints. Indeed, members of Congress often say their constituents have more gripes about the INS than any other federal agency.

"The INS is suffering from mission overload," said Rep. George W. Gekas (R-Pa.), chairman of the House subcommittee on immigration. The unrelenting flow of immigrants, he added in a recent statement, "is beyond the capacity of the INS to process and monitor."

The new INS structure would phase out the existing arrangement of regional and district headquarters and replace it with a new network of area and local offices. INS officials said the reorganization was not intended as a downsizing and in fact it could add 522 positions overall.

Management experts cautioned that restructuring alone may not be sufficient to turn around an agency as institutionally troubled as the INS. Regular audits and investigations have found that some INS offices lack basic tools, such as workable computers and meaningful coordination among departments.

"Restructuring may address some of the management challenges that we found," said Richard M. Stana, director of justice issues for the General Accounting Office, "but the INS still faces significant challenges assembling the basic building blocks that any organization needs."

The INS annually inspects more than 500 million arrivals. Screening out potential terrorists and other criminals is a daunting task; pressured officers must rely on imperfect tools such as reviews of documents and checks against law enforcement databases.

Stung by the criticisms about poor service, INS officials Wednesday said they would establish an Office of Customer Relations to "provide quick and fair resolution" of complaints and that the reorganized INS would push for "consistent, courteous, accurate and timely service."

But if the INS overhaul seemed an attempt to fix what many see as the agency's bifurcated mission--keeping out and deporting undesirable foreigners while assisting those deemed worthy of U.S. residence and citizenship--members of Congress said Wednesday that they want to go further.

A proposal by Gekas and Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, also would split up the INS enforcement and service functions. But unlike the White House approach, the congressional proposal would abolish the INS and make both the law enforcement and service functions subordinate to a newly created authority in the Justice Department.

The House plan remains in the proposal stage, and passage in its current form remains uncertain.

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