WASHINGTON – Increasing concern over lax immigration rules and border security has led the Justice Department to speed up its restructuring of the Immigration and Naturalization Service.
Attorney General John Ashcroft announced Wednesday that INS duties will be split into two separate bureaus: law enforcement and immigration processing. The separate departments will remain intact under one commissioner.
Ashcroft said DOJ moved quickly on the restructuring to counter the threat posed by terrorists taking advantage of loose immigration laws to come into the United States to commit terrorist acts.
"What we do today is a way of reinforcing this concept that America welcomes those immigrants who come here to promote, build, elevate, dignify and lift up freedom. But it will not -- our nation will not welcome those who come to destroy freedom and whose confidence is not in liberty, but is in the kind of subversion of liberty which the terrorist promotes," Ashcroft said.
Thirteen of the 19 hijackers in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks entered the United States legally, but no entry records exist for the other six.
The split will create a Bureau of Immigration Services, which will work to assist people who apply for benefits such as naturalization or permanent residency. Improving the processing system was a campaign pledge by President Bush last year.
The Bureau of Immigration Enforcement will oversee intelligence, investigations and the tracking of illegal aliens. The restructuring should be complete by Sept. 20, 2003.
INS Commissioner James Ziglar joined Ashcroft for the announcement. He said separating the bureaus but not completely severing them made sense because it will allow each bureau to concentrate on its mission while being able to easily share information. It will also create very defined chains of command.
Ziglar said he will present the plan to Congress on Thursday.
Several representatives, including House Judiciary Committee chairman James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., and Rep. George Gekas, R-Pa., who chairs the immigration subcommittee, have proposed abolishing the INS and creating two new agencies.
"We look very much forward to working with the Congress, with Congressman Sensenbrenner, Congressman Gekas, who have been very diligent in their oversight of this process. And we hope to be able to work out the process and the plan that will result in a much more effective INS," Ziglar said. "But regardless of what the outcome is with respect to legislation or anything else, what we're doing, what we're announcing today and what we hope to do is something that will have a material positive effect on the performance of the INS."
The Bush administration proceeded with the plan in part because it does not need congressional approval to do institute the changes, only to allocate funds to support the changes.
Separating the bureaus into two distinct agencies would require congressional approval.
Funding for INS application processing has nearly quadrupled since 1994 to $500 million, according to a General Accounting Office report issued in June. Staff has doubled to 6,100.
At the same time, the INS backlog on processing applications increased nearly fourfold to about 3.9 million, the GAO said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.