WASHINGTON - Hoping to dispel fears that foreign terrorists can slip easily into the United States, the Bush administration said yesterday that it would reshape the troubled Immigration and Naturalization Service to split apart its two, sometimes conflicting, functions.
The overhaul would separate the agency's duty of enforcing immigration laws from its task of providing services to legal immigrants. That change had been discussed for years, but it gained urgency after the terrorist violence Sept. 11 exposed deep-rooted deficiencies at the INS.
Among the 19 suicide hijackers who carried out the attacks, one came to the United States on a student visa but never attended a class. Two entered the country even though they were on government watch lists of suspected terrorists. No INS records exist for six.
"The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 underscored in the most painful way for Americans that we need better control over individuals coming to our shores from other nations," Attorney General John Ashcroft said in announcing the overhaul.
The restructuring is expected to take about two years.
During last year's presidential campaign, President Bush pledged to restructure the INS, which members of Congress have criticized for years as unresponsive and inefficient. After Sept. 11, Bush pledged a more sweeping effort to tighten border controls, crack down on student visas and track noncitizens who have been linked to terrorist groups.
The restructured agency, Ashcroft said yesterday, will be a "greater servant to our friends and a greater obstacle to our enemies."
Some have cautioned that reorganization will not be a cure-all.
Richard M. Stana, who oversees Justice Department issues for the General Accounting Office, told lawmakers last month that the INS still requires the most fundamental improvements - clearly defined duties, better internal and external communications and better computer tracking systems.
"Unless these elements are established, enforcing our immigration laws, providing services to eligible aliens and effectively participating in the governmentwide efforts to combat terrorism will be problematic, regardless of how INS is structured," Stana said.
Glenn A. Fine, the Justice Department's inspector general, has warned that an overhaul that would split the INS into two divisions "might merely compound the deficiencies in the agency's management controls, systems and accountability." The INS should address these issues first, he said.
For years, government inspectors have documented INS shortcomings that have cost taxpayers millions of dollars and forced legal immigrants who seek benefits or citizenship to endure long waits and a baffling bureaucracy.
Among the recent findings by the Justice inspector general:
The INS spent $31.2 million between 1996 and last year to set up a computer system to track the entry and exit of every noncitizen. But the system, which Congress had mandated, is operating at only a few airports and is not expected to be completed until 2005.
Efforts to share intelligence information with other federal agencies have repeatedly failed. Sheik Omar Abdul Rahman, spiritual leader of the group found responsible for the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, legally entered the United States on a visitor's visa before the attack, though he was on a U.S. intelligence "watch list" of suspected terrorists.
Some immigration advocates say the INS has been unfairly singled out for criticism and repair. "Look, a lot of agencies and industries got caught off guard on Sept. 11, and the INS is just one of many now scrambling to make sure there isn't another Sept. 11," said Angela Kelley, deputy policy director for the National Immigration Forum.
But lawmakers, who in recent years have given the INS hefty infusions of money and workers, have expressed impatience about the pace of reforms.
The agency's budget was $4.8 billion this year, an increase of 220 percent since 1993, according to the Government Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress. During that period, the agency payroll has swelled from 18,000 employees to 33,000.
The plans announced yesterday are expected to cost about $100 million, with some money being used to buy out mid-level and senior-level administrators.
Overall, though, the restructuring is expected to produce a net gain of 522 jobs, because some tasks now handled by one person will have to be performed by two, said a senior INS official who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Under the restructuring, the bulk of the service's daily work would be divided between two bureaus. Both would report to the INS commissioner, James W. Ziglar, who drafted the restructuring plan in early September, soon after he took over the agency.
A new Bureau of Immigration Enforcement would include border patrol and would handle intelligence, investigations and illegal aliens. A Bureau of Immigration Services would process applications for naturalization, asylum, green card renewals, work permits and other benefits.
The plan stops short of abolishing the INS and creating two separate agencies - a move favored by some in Congress. Lawmakers unhappy with the restructuring could still decide to impose their plan for the INS. And in any case, Congress would still hold considerable power over the agency by controlling its budget.
Some lawmakers over the past month have proposed immigration reforms, such as creating a centralized "lookout" database and requiring INS background checks before the State Department could issue student visas.
At the White House, Bush has appointed a task force to study how suspected terrorists can be kept out of the United States or deported once discovered. Specifically, the president called for closer scrutiny of student visas, on which some 500,000 foreigners study at U.S. colleges each year.
The focus on student visas was prompted by the case of one of the suicide hijackers, Hani Hanjour, suspected of flying the plane that hit the Pentagon on Sept. 11. Immigration officials have said that Hanjour entered the United States on a student visa to enroll in an English-language program in Oakland, Calif. He never showed up for classes but eluded INS notice.
In an earlier case, Samir Al Araji earned a doctorate in nuclear engineering from Michigan State University, then returned to his native Iraq to head that country's nuclear weapons program.
The reorganization of the INS is part of a broad shift at the Justice Department to make counterterrorism the overriding priority of federal agents and investigators. The department also has begun enforcing new anti-terrorism legislation, which gives the government retroactive powers to deport noncitizens who are suspected terrorists or somehow connected to terrorist groups.
The new immigration efforts signal a policy switch for the Bush administration. Before Sept. 11, the president had appeared to be favoring a plan to grant amnesty to roughly 3 million illegal aliens from Mexico living in the United States. Those plans are on hold.
"We are a welcoming country," Bush said last week. "We will always value freedom, yet we will not allow those who plot against our country to abuse our freedoms and our protections."
Recent history suggests that will not be an easy task. The INS estimates that 40 percent to 50 percent of the roughly 7.5 million illegal immigrants in the United States are "visa overstays" - people whose simply remained in the country beyond their visa's deadline and avoid detection.
That was the case for at least three of the 19 suicide hijackers, INS records show.
Thirteen had entered the United States legally. Of the remaining six men, the INS has said it could not match names to immigration records or confirm their status.