WASHINGTON – With the Immigration and Naturalization Service under a microscope on Capitol Hill, lawmakers bested Bush administration efforts to reform the troubled agency and voted Wednesday on measures to abolish it and create two new agencies to handle separately enforcement and immigration services.
The House Judiciary Committee voted 32-2 to send the full House a bill offered by the chairman, Rep. James Sensenbrenner, to break up the INS into two separate agencies under the Justice Department.
"The INS has reorganized itself numerous times in the past two decades, but the agency is still in a deep quagmire. I don't think any additional attempt at internal reorganizing can pull the INS out of this morass in which it finds itself," Sensenbrenner said.
Democratic Reps. Melvin Watt of North Carolina and Zoe Lofgren of California voted against the bill. Watt said splitting up the INS won't help if the new agencies don't get enough money to properly operate.
"Instead of one ineffective agency, you will get three or four ineffective agencies as a result," he said.
The vote came one day after the committee grilled the head of the agency about a national security lapse that allowed four Pakistani crewmen to jump ship in Norfolk, Va., last month and disappear.
One was later arrested, but the other three remain at large.
"I think it is important to note that there is no information on any of these four, now three, individuals that would indicate that they have any connection to any terrorist or criminal organizations," INS Commissioner James Ziglar told the committee Tuesday.
At the same time, Ziglar said in a letter to the committee that crew members on 40 other ships were allowed to go ashore in violation of new INS regulations issued since the Sept. 11 attacks limiting shore leave for foreign merchant marines.
"None of these vessels were processed in accordance with the field guidance as the Norfolk office was apparently unaware of the guidance," Ziglar said.
Critics were not surprised by the discovery that the agency is overworked and understaffed.
The INS has a backlog of some 5 million applications, and estimates that it has lost track of more than 314,000 aliens ordered to be deported but still in the country.
"If anyone takes only a fleeting glance at the current INS structure, it quickly becomes obvious that despite all these internal reorganizations, the agency is as dysfunctional as it has ever been," Sensenbrenner said.
Sensenbrenner and traditional rival John Conyers, ranking member of the committee, agreed that the agency should be split into two distinct bureaus, one responsible for enforcement of borders and illegal aliens, and another to handle immigration services.
Laying out a stack of reports issued in the past seven years that propose ways to fix the agency, the committee's top members said it should not be hard to conceive of many changes that can be made.
"We've been doing the administrative tango for a long time with the INS and it just doesn't work," Conyers said Tuesday.
Ziglar didn't disagree though he said the Bush administration has no position on Sensenbrenner's bill.
"There's no debate about whether the INS must be reformed," Ziglar conceded. "The issue is simply how can it be done quickly, efficiently, and with the appropriate degree of flexibility."
Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., has a similar bill floating in the Senate though he wants to make the head of the two agencies an independent administrator appointed by the president rather than an associate attorney general in the Justice Department.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.