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Congress Takes Initial Vote to Overhaul US Immigration System

The House of Representatives has approved legislation that would dismantle the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the government agency severely criticized in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks. Lawmakers acted in response to a groundswell of public dissatisfaction over embarrassing mistakes, and seemingly irreversible inefficiency they said threatened national security.

In debate, lawmaker after lawmaker detailed what they called decades of mismanagement and catastrophic failures creating conditions they said made the September 11 attacks possible.

Republican Congressman John Linder of Georgia was one of the supporters of the bill. "Every single one of the September 11 hijackers was able to enter the United States legally, and while three over-stayed their visas, the INS did not have the capacity to track, find and deport visa violators,"

The bill passed by the Republican-controlled House would create the Agency for Immigration Affairs. It would consist of separate Bureaus of Citizenship and Immigration Services, and Immigration Enforcement. Both would remain under the Department of Justice.

The Bush Administration had proposed its own plan for restructuring, but threw its support behind the House legislation. "Our nation's security depends on protecting our lengthy borders. Our nation's prosperity depends on welcoming needed workers," said Attorney General John Ashcroft. "It is time to separate fully our service to legal immigrants who help build America, from our enforcement against illegal aliens who violate the laws of America."

The Democratic-controlled Senate has yet to vote on its version of immigration reform. Republican Congressman James Sensenbrenner, key sponsor of the House bill, urged speedy Senate action so a bill can be sent to President Bush before Congress adjourns later this year. "Promptly and speedily schedule their version of this legislation so that we can have a Senate-House conference committee, and to get this job done before this Congress adjourns in October," he said.

The INS is often described as the worst-managed agency in the federal government. In Thursday's debate some lawmakers repeatedly referred to it derogatorily as: "Ignoring National Security."

Lawmakers cited numerous statistics. Five million outstanding visa petitions and citizenship applications, an estimated eight million illegal immigrants still residing in the United States.

But several expressed concern over creation of a new federal bureaucracy. Democratic Congressman Alcee Hastings hoped the bill would resolve one big problem. "Grievous inequities in current INS policy that grant one type of treatment for refugees from certain countries, and a different second class if not third class type of treatment to migrants from other countries," he said.

The INS had been restructured nine times since 1979. The House voted overwhelmingly, 405 to 9, to dismantle it.