WASHINGTON – President Bush is seriously considering a proposal suggested by the homeland security director to revamp border patrol in the wake of Sept. 11 by merging the Immigration and Naturalization Service and the Customs Service.
Contrary to earlier reports, the border patrol that is currently part of the INS would not be separated from the immigration service. Several agencies involved in border patrol, like the Agriculture Department, which checks plants, food and animals crossing the borders, will not be affected by the changes.
An administration official said Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill has no objections to Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge's suggestion that Customs move out of the Treasury Department and into the Justice Department, where INS is housed.
Attorney General John Ashcroft said the Justice Department would continue to repair problems within the INS regardless of the outcome.
"We're doing our very best to improve our performance and we're going to correct the defects. This agency, pardon me a variety of agencies, are in a position to improve their performance and we'll be doing that," he said.
INS Commissioner James Ziglar, who appeared at the National Press Club Tuesday, declined to comment on the proposal, and said only that the process of restructuring would take several years.
In a sign that Bush is likely to endorse the plan, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer defended the concept behind the proposal.
"There is a school of thought that you can have better controls and more effective ways of welcoming people to this country, welcoming trade to this country, while keeping people out who would do us harm as a result of consolidation," Fleischer said.
If he accepts the proposal, Bush will make a recommendation to Congress despite the expectation that he will face plenty of resistance.
One official said that even with resistance, Congress would have to approve some kind of adjustments to border security.
"To oppose that after Sept. 11 would force them to argue that no changes need to be made," the official said.
The suicide hijackings over Washington, New York and Pennsylvania highlighted holes in the nation's border security procedures.
The government has acknowledged that four of the Sept. 11 hijackers had overstayed their visas, and a recent Justice Department review suggested the system has remained lax since then. That review found that even after the Sept. 11 attacks, U.S. immigration officials have been failing to consistently check terrorist watch lists when approving foreign visitors entering the United States without visas.
The INS blundered again last week when it failed to stop paperwork issued confirming the approval more than six months ago of student visas for two of the Sept. 11 hijackers.
Separately, the president asked the Senate Tuesday to pass Section 245(i) of the Immigration Act. The measure is an immigration amnesty plan that allows illegal aliens to seek permanent residence in the United States without leaving the country if they are sponsored by an employer or family member.
The measure would affect about three million Mexican illegals as well as others. Bush, who is headed to Mexico this week for an international economics conference, wants to give good news to Mexican President Vicente Fox about the status of the measure when he arrives.
"This bill passed the House and it now needs to pass the Senate. It is a bill which enhances border security and at the same time says that if someone is living here legally then they won't have to leave the country to stay with their family, in other words, they won't have to leave the country, apply, and then come back to be with their family. We believe in family values," Bush said following a Cabinet meeting Tuesday.
Fox News' Jim Angle and the Associated Press contributed to this report.