Congress begins examining legislation Wednesday that would bring far-reaching reform to the nation's immigration agency. The Immigration and Naturalization Service has long been criticized for processing delays that effectively allow illegal aliens to overstay their welcomes. However, it came under renewed criticism last month after sending approved visa applications for two of the September 11 terrorist hijackers to the Florida flight school they once attended.
By all accounts, President Bush was furious when he heard about the gaffe committed last month by Immigration and Naturalization Service officials.
The INS mailing to the Huffman aviation school of visa paperwork for terrorist hijackers Mohammed Atta and Marwan al-Shehhi was only the latest in a series of embarassing mistakes by the immigration agency.
INS and congressional officials say immigration agents are overwhelmed by an enormous amount of work and an inefficient structure that creates long application backlogs.
Congressman James Sensenbrenner, Republican of Wisconsin, heads the House of Representatives subcommittee that deals with immigration.
"The agency operates in a constant management crisis mode, responding to error after mishap, with no coherent strategy of how to accomplish its law enforcement or services mission successfully," he said.
Bush administration and congressional officials have cited the recurring mishaps as a major reason for their drive to restructure the agency. Last November, the administration announced plans to split the agency into two branches: one dealing with visa and naturalization applications, and another that would enforce immigration decisions and deport illegal aliens.
On Wednesday, Congress began considering legislation that would turn the administration's plan into reality.
Also this week, the Immigration and Naturalization Service announced tighter visa regulations to help prevent abuse of student and visitor visas by illegal aliens and would-be terrorists. Business and visitor visas were previously valid for six months.
INS Commissioner James Ziglar explains what the new regulations will mean.
"When you come to the United States, when you meet that immigration inspector, he will grant you admission into the United States for that period of time necessary for you to do whatever it is you are coming for. So if you're coming here to visit Aunt Bessie for two months, you will get a visa for two months."
Commissioner Ziglar also says visitors who want to apply for student visas once they are in the United States will have to follow new procedures.
"Students who come to the United States on a visitor visa, a lot of them come here on that visa and then they file for a change of status, which is what the terrorists Atta and Al-Shehhi did," he said. "Now if you are going to come here with the intention of becoming a student, if you come here on a visitor visa, you have to declare your intention to seek a change of status once you are here. If you do not do that, you will have to go home and get your visa at home and come back as a student."
The matter has caused concern among business lobbies and representatives of the $584 billion a year U.S. travel industry. They say the September 11 attacks have severely hurt tourism and warn that visa hurdles could discourage potential visitors from traveling to the United States.