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Skeptics Wary of Impending INS Split

Restructuring: Details are sketchy about how the two new bureaus would be organized.

April 29, 2002|PATRICK J. McDONNELL and JONATHAN PETERSON | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — It took a national calamity, but it now seems inevitable that the Immigration and Naturalization Service--long the target of derision, even contempt, from the borderlands to the corridors of Congress--will be replaced.

An overwhelming House vote on Thursday probably ensures that the INS will be eliminated, its duties shifted to new bureaus in the Justice Department.

Concluded Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.), architect of the House plan: "We must practice tough love and abolish the INS."

Yet the question lingers: What will emerge in its place?

The Senate also has a plan to do away with the INS. Both proposals would split the agency's two core missions--serving the immigrant population, while watching borders and enforcing immigration laws--between a pair of new bureaus, each with its own budget. Under both plans, the title of INS commissioner would be changed, although a single official would remain at the helm of immigration policy.

Beyond that, the plans offer varying prescriptions with sketchy details. Nitty-gritty decisions about where to open enforcement and service offices or how personnel might be redeployed probably will be made down the line.

Such changes, lawmakers predict, will pay off in a newly efficient immigration bureaucracy, one that can do a better job of keeping out terrorists and other criminals while also reducing illegal immigration and improving the INS' woeful service record.

For all the political momentum, some wonder: Is this a well-reasoned response to a long-recognized dilemma? Or a flailing act of frustration and political expediency? Will redrawing the organizational chart solve the seemingly intractable problems in U.S. immigration policy?

"It could make things somewhat better--or considerably worse," said former INS Commissioner Doris Meissner, whose Clinton administration reign included one of several internal agency reorganizations in recent years. "It by no means is going to solve all the problems in the immigration area."

On the near horizon, some skeptics already perceive the glimmer of folly.

"You have got one inefficient, unproductive INS now," said Rep. Melvin L. Watt (D-N.C.), one of the few opponents of the House measure to split up the service. "It seems to me that what you are going to end up with is two inefficient agencies."

Reorganization Won't Cure All Agency Ills

Critics are quick to note what the breakup of the INS, in and of itself, is not likely to achieve.

It does not alter U.S. immigration policy, which continues to struggle with competing aims of facilitating legitimate arrivals and closing the door to those barred from entry--a struggle that has become even more difficult since Sept. 11.

It does not modernize the service's inefficient technology or transform its hodgepodge of uncoordinated information systems and lax internal discipline.

It does not address the powerful pressures behind unlawful immigration. Nor does the INS' demise mean that the agency's heirs suddenly will be magnets for talented managers.

Rather, the architects of reform are placing enormous faith in the notion that improvements can arise from a more efficient chain of command, and what they view as a more logical division of work responsibilities.

Few argue seriously that the INS alone could have averted the attacks of Sept. 11, which were carried out by 19 Middle Eastern men who had entered the country on legal visas.

Yet the Sept. 11 strikes transformed immigration from a back-burner discussion centering on possible amnesty for illegal immigrants from Mexico into a high-stakes debate about national security. And the INS' sluggish response only reinforced its image as a lumbering behemoth lurching from one crisis to the next.

In the charged aftermath of Sept. 11, the INS acknowledged that it had no idea where to find multitudes of foreign students and other short-term visitors--not to mention 300,000 people already ordered deported, many with criminal records. The illegal immigrant population, meantime, is believed to have surged past 8 million--approximately the population of Georgia.

Lawmakers pounced on an agency that, by one estimate, generates six times as many complaints to congressional staffs as the Internal Revenue Service. The disastrous mailing of visa approvals to a pair of dead hijackers last month sealed the service's fate.

"The INS is going into the wastebasket of history," declared Rep. Bob Barr (R-Ga.). "We need to shred it, gather the shreds, burn them, gather the ashes and distribute them among the four corners of this world so this agency . . . can never . . . endanger our security and be a disgrace to this country."

Congressional and White House efforts to retool the INS share a common diagnosis: Many of the agency's woes can be traced to its two very different missions.

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