INS dissolution helps immigration policy recovery

The beleaguered Immigration and Naturalization Service seems destined to receive its long-overdue death certificate this week in the form of a Senate bill sponsored by Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., and Sam Brownback, R-Kan. Last week, the House voted 405-9 in favor of a similar bill, sponsored by Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., which seeks to split the agency’s contradictory missions – aiding and detaining immigrants – into two separate departments. Both agencies, under the House plan, would create a new position within the Justice Department – assistant attorney general – to which the agencies would report.

Critics of the House bill note that the new position is mostly powerless in regard to personnel and budgetary issues, and with this setup some rightly fear Congress is foregoing one ineffective agency in favor of two. In addition, the House plan would sever INS’ only saving grace – its aid to immigrants, both temporary and permanent – from the agency’s other function of eternal vigilance of foreign threats that seek to bring their battle to the United States. Even though those two aims are currently combined, the latter has grown more and more out of control in recent years and months, tossing immigrants in jail or out of the country at breakneck speeds. Completely removing any incentive for temperance could prove too costly for U.S. immigration.

The Senate bill allays many of these concerns. Instead of making a clean cut, the bill would separate the INS’ duties in two but put them under the authority of a new agency, similar to the FBI. This new agency’s director would have control over budget and personnel, avoiding the pitfalls inherent in a lame-duck leader, while keeping two clearly defined divisions operating more effectively toward their respective goals. Moreover, this setup allows the new agency’s director to serve as a check on immigrant detention and expulsion, at least leaving the door open for temperance of immigration policies.

Clearly, the Senate’s bill should win out when it meets the House’s in conference committee. To do so, President George W. Bush – as head of the governmental branch that will hold this reformed immigration watchdog’s leash – needs to put its weight behind the Senate. So far, signs have been encouraging.

Hours before the House voted to pass their version, attorney general John Ashcroft publicly voiced the Bush administration’s support for abolishing the INS in its current form. And after the bill passed, Ashcroft said that, though it was an important step to meaningful immigration reform, it was only a first step. The attorney general and his department have taken a lot of flak in recent months because of INS bungles, the most public of which was the renewal of visas for two of the 19 terrorists involved in the Sept. 11 attacks. The visas arrived March 11, six months after the attacks. It seems the lessons did not go unlearned.

Now that reorganization seems imminent, Ashcroft must set to work on developing a comprehensive plan for the interim. The INS currently has thousands of immigrants in jails and prisons across the United States, many who have been waiting years for their deportation hearing. It is critical these people and their corresponding paperwork are not lost in what is sure to be a massive transition.

In the meantime, however, we are encouraged by both the Bush administration’s and Congress’ recognition of a problem that has been festering for far too long. This most likely will not solve all the problems facing immigrants and immigration control. But as Ashcroft said, it is “an important first step.”