The bill passed, 405 to 9, reflecting overwhelming support to straighten out an agency that has become legendary for bureaucratic incompetence, most recently when it notified a Florida flight school that two of the Sept. 11 terrorists had been approved for U.S. visas--six months after they attacked the World Trade Center.
"It is beyond time to restructure one of the worst-run agencies in the federal government," said House Judiciary Committee Chairman F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.), the bill's sponsor. INS, he said, stood for "Ignoring National Security" or "Incompetent and Negligent Service." The Senate could begin to consider its own version of an INS overhaul as early as next week. While lawmakers still differ over details, the broad goal of reshaping the nation's immigration service sparks little controversy and may be one of the least disputed goals of Congress this year.
Shortly before the vote, Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft visited Capitol Hill, telling lawmakers, "We are committed to ending the INS as we know it." The White House has offered a qualified endorsement of the House proposal but wants to establish a stronger office inside the Justice Department to oversee the bureaus that would handle enforcement and routine service.
"I am convinced it is time for reform," House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) said Thursday, reflecting the broad, bipartisan support for the measure.
Long before Sept. 11, INS actions--and inactions--had given rise to an army of critics. The immigration agency was lambasted for mishandling paperwork, losing track of deportees, and meting out justice with different standards in different parts of the country. Lawful immigrants complained of endless backlogs, and many blamed the INS for the nation's burgeoning population of illegal residents.
But last year's terrorist attacks elevated the chronic complaints to a priority. Three of the 19 hijackers remained in the country after falling out of legal status, including one who had been granted a student visa and never reported to school.
Some objections to the House bill reflected the view not that the bill went too far but that it did not go far enough.
"The same people at the INS will be doing the same things they're doing today, which are the same things that they were doing prior to Sept. 11," complained Rep. Jim Kolbe (R-Ariz.). He argued that the House bill, rather than bringing fundamental reform, "simply rearranges the boxes on the existing organization chart of INS."
Under the House bill, a new associate attorney general for immigration affairs would supervise the new divisions as the third-ranking official within the Justice Department. Despite the high rank, critics questioned whether the two new units would be left without a strong, unifying leader.
The White House contends that the proposed associate attorney general would be in a weaker position than the existing INS commissioner. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) has been preparing a bill that is expected to come closer to White House demands, and the White House has hinted that it will work closely with the Senate to advance the INS overhaul.
"You need an office at the top that has the ability to set the tone for national immigration policy," said Larry Gonzalez, Washington office director for the National Assn. of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials. Otherwise, he maintained, conflicting policies and messages could emerge from the separate enforcement operations, such as the Border Patrol, and more routine immigration services.
In November, the Bush administration unveiled its own plan to remake the INS, with a similar separation of enforcement and immigrant service functions.
In addition, Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge has been promoting a plan to merge the Border Patrol, which is part of INS, and the Customs Service, which is part of the Treasury Department, in a new agency responsible for border security. That proposal is being debated inside the administration and enjoys at least some support on Capitol Hill.
INS officials sought a low profile after the bill passed, signaling their support for the White House approach while trying not to make new enemies in Congress.
"The service has always said that its goals for restructuring are the separation of enforcement and service, the establishment of clear lines of authority and improved accountability and performance," INS officials said in an unsigned statement. "INS will continue to work closely with Congress to achieve these objectives."
Ashcroft described the INS overhaul Thursday as a work in progress, implying that the administration hoped the emerging Senate bill would more closely reflect the White House approach.
"This is not the end of the journey," the attorney general said. "This is an important first step essential to the journey's end but not sufficient to get us there."