WASHINGTON -- In an effort to improve the nation's immigration system, a federal advisory panel has decided to recommend abolishing the troubled Immigration and Naturalization Service and assigning its duties to other government agencies.
Declaring that the immigration service suffers from "mission overload," the panel, the U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform, is proposing that the Justice Department, the immigration service's parent agency, retain responsibility for controlling the border and removing illegal immigrants.
The State Department, which now deals with visas at U.S. embassies overseas, would handle immigration services and benefits, like citizenship requests. The Labor Department, which now monitors wage and hour laws, would also enforce rules covering the hiring of foreign workers, according to a draft copy of the report, "Structuring, Organizing and Managing an Effective Immigration System," obtained by the New York Times.
"It's very hard for one agency with so many conflicting missions and so much fragmentation to have priorities set and missions realized," said Bruce Morrison, a commission member and a former Democratic congressman from Connecticut, explaining the panel's reasoning for dismantling the immigration service.
Democrats and Republicans in Congress who have been briefed by the commission in the past few weeks generally embrace the proposal to separate along functional lines the disparate immigration duties.
But the immigration service and the Justice Department are gearing up to fight the proposal.
"We're against splitting up INS," said Carole Florman, a Justice Department spokeswoman. "We believe the enforcement functions and benefits functions really do work hand in hand."
The proposal comes when Congress and many of the nation's governors are growing increasingly exasperated with the immigration service's inability to cope with soaring requests for citizenship, weed out criminal aliens living in the United States and crack down on the steady stream of illegal immigrants entering the country.
"The message to the administration is that this is not about rearranging deck chairs on a sinking ship, it's about getting results," said Allen Kay, a spokesman for Republican Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas, who heads the House immigration subcommittee and has been briefed on the proposal.
The House Appropriations Committee last month directed Attorney General Janet Reno to review the commission's report and, along with other federal agencies, "develop a restructuring plan" to perform the nation's immigration duties more efficiently.
House members, led by Republican Harold Rogers of Kentucky, who heads the appropriations subcommittee that oversees the Justice Department, are urging the administration to act on the proposal by October 1998. The commission's report is to be released by late next month.
The scope of the panel's recommendations has surprised many senior administration officials. Policy-makers who have been briefed on the commission's findings, including Patrick Kennedy, the acting undersecretary of state for management, declined yesterday to comment on the report.
Privately, administration officials said the report would be a starting point for a spirited debate on how to manage the country's burgeoning immigration system.
Many of the nation's governors also find the commission's proposals intriguing.
"The INS has done an abominable job in so many areas, including patrolling the border, that we are certainly open to looking at other options," said Sean Walsh, deputy chief of staff to Gov. Pete Wilson of California, a Republican.
Officials at the immigration service, one of the fastest-growing government agencies whose budget has doubled to $3.1 billion this fiscal year from four years ago, said the commission's proposal would reverse this financial investment and ignore improvements made in recent years in response to congressional criticism.
"We'd be redoing all the work we've done in the past," said Chris Sale, the immigration service's deputy commissioner.
Congress created the bipartisan commission in 1990 to help advise lawmakers on immigration issues. It has issued reports on legal and illegal immigration. Earlier this year, the panel released a third report, which criticized provisions of an immigration law passed last year that authorizes the immediate expulsion of some would-be refugees who arrive in the United States.
But the commission's fourth and final report is likely to be its most politically explosive.
After interviewing current and former immigration officials from several government agencies, the panel concluded: "Some of the agencies that implement the immigration laws, the INS in particular, have so many priorities that they have proved unable to manage all of them effectively."
The report continues, "Such a system is set up for failure and, with such failure, further loss of public confidence in the immigration system."
Pub Date: 8/05/97