WASHINGTON – The House of Representatives overwhelmingly approved a bill Thursday that completely overhauls the troubled Immigration and Naturalization Service.
The 405-9 romp in effect scraps the INS and creates a new office "Agency for Immigration Affairs" in the Justice Department headed by the associate attorney general for immigration affairs. Within this new agency there will be two bureaus: the Bureau of Immigration Services and Adjudications and the Bureau of Immigration Enforcement. According to the bill, a director with 10 years of experience would head each bureau.
"It is beyond time to restructure one of the worst-run agencies in the U.S. government," said Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., who authored the legislation.
The bill also requires the attorney general to establish an Internet-based system that permits people with applications filed with the INS to access online information about the status of the application, and creates a special office for children's cases.
The Bush administration threw its support behind the bill in the eleventh hour. Attorney General John Ashcroft appeared on Capitol Hill Thursday to endorse the Barbara Jordan Immigration Reform and Accountability Act, which will restructure it into two organizations, one for enforcement of immigration rules and one for administration of visa requests.
"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," Ashcroft said before the vote.
Up until now, the White House had resisted new legislation, preferring to make internal changes to the agency and consolidating the INS and the Customs Service into one unit under the Justice Department.
White House spokesman Scott McLellan said the bill wasn't perfect, but compromises could be reached.
"There are several improvements we would like to see in the legislation, but we share a common goal and believe that Congress needs to get this done," he said.
The administration's change of heart about the INS reforms may have been prompted in part by what was described as an embarrassment to President Bush when a Florida flight school received paper notification in February that two of the hijackers who crashed their planes into the World Trade Center had their student visas approved. A month later, the INS reported that it had allowed four Pakistani merchant marines to disembark their ship in Norfolk, Va., and they never returned.
Thirteen of the 19 terrorists who hijacked four commercial jets on Sept. 11 entered the United States legally on tourist, business or student visas. The government has acknowledged that four of those men allegedly remained in the United States after their visas had expired.
One of the few opponents of the bill said the changes would make little difference.
"You've got one inefficient unproductive INS now. It seems to me what you're going to end up with is two inefficient agencies," said Rep. Mel Watt, D-N.C.
Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., who introduced a similar bill in the Senate, said he prefers that the head of the agency be appointed by the president to act independently of the Justice Department.
"In reforming the INS, we need to maintain strong overall leadership to ensure uniformity, efficiency and decisive action in a crisis. Now is not the time to diminish the power of the person running the nation's immigration agency," he said Wednesday.
Ashcroft said he would be "delighted" if INS Commissioner James Ziglar spearheaded the changes.
Currently, the INS has a backlog of some five million applications, and estimates that it has lost track of more than 314,000 aliens ordered to be deported but still in the country.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.