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What's the Future of INS? - 2002-03-15

President Bush wants to know why six months after the September 11 terrorist attacks the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service sent notices to a Florida flight school saying that student visas had been approved for two of the now dead hijackers. Critics of the INS are calling this just another embarrassing example of how an agency long unable to keep track of immigrants needs to be reformed or even abolished.

President Bush did not hide his anger after learning in the morning newspaper that the INS had sent word this week that Mohamed Atta and Marwan al-Shehhi - the terrorists who flew planes into the World Trade Center - had both been approved to study in the United States.

"I was stunned and not happy. I was plenty hot," he said. "I could barely get my coffee down when I picked up my local newspaper."

Even though both men entered the country legally, the president called it an embarrassing disclosure that demonstrates the need for reform at the agency charged with processing immigrants at more than 300 land, air and sea ports.

The INS says the unfortunate incident was caused by a backlog in paperwork. But the president has ordered a full investigation into what Attorney General John Ashcroft called an act of incompetence by an agency that has shown a disturbing failure at record keeping.

Congress is angry as well. Republican James Sensenbrenner, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, is sponsoring legislation that would abolish the federal agency that critics charge is unable to keep track of immigrants. He spoke on CBS's The Morning Show.

"That shows how bad the INS is if they don't get around to issuing student visas until the students should be out of school," he said. "Congress in 1996 told them to get a student visa tracking system and provided the money for it and they never got around to doing it so it's one fiasco after another."

The INS has long been accused of being unable to keep track of people whose visas expire. There are also stories of immigrants whose applications for citizenship have languished in the INS bureaucracy for years.

"It is a difficult, difficult agency to manage and it is an agency that has until recent years been terribly neglected in getting the modern technology and resources that it needs," said former INS Commissioner Doris Meissner, who headed the agency during the Clinton Administration. "The big need right now is that the agency be allowed to move ahead and be fundamentally restructured top to bottom."

But part of the problem is that the INS is required to enforce immigration law in an environment in which American views about immigrants often change, depending on the overall mood of the country.

"We are very ambivalent about immigration and very uncertain about how to handle the immigration rules that we've enacted," Ms. Meissner said. "And that comes out all the time in the politics that surround immigration and it makes it very difficult for the Congress to give clear direction and difficult for the agency to function under that schizophrenia."

President Bush had no explanation for this latest mishap but believes as well, that it demonstrates the need to restructure an agency that, on average, is responsible for inspecting the half a billion people who transit the United States each year.

"It's inexcusable," the president said. "So we've got to reform the INS and we've got to push hard to do so. This is an interesting wake up call for those who run the INS."

His administration is proposing an overhaul of the agency to give it a more clear cut mandate and is asking Congress for $500 million in additional funds to improve the INS's ability to keep an eye on all immigrants who enter and leave the United States.