House Judiciary Committee members agreed Thursday on a proposal to split the Immigration and Naturalization Service in two, a bid by Congress to assert its role in overhauling the agency.
The Bush administration had proposed a similar change to the INS that it sought to accomplish without congressional action. The proposal announced Thursday by Judiciary Committee Chairman F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., R-Wis., and Rep. John Conyers Jr., D-Mich., the committee's ranking Democrat, would create a clearer split between the INS's enforcement and administrative functions by giving them separate budgets.
Negotiators reached the compromise after the embarrassing disclosure last week that the INS had approved visas for two of the Sept. 11 hijackers six months after the terrorist attacks.
The agreement would keep the INS divisions within the Justice Department and create the position of associate attorney general for immigration affairs, who would be the department's third-ranking official. The proposal calls for creating a "children's office" to deal with immigration problems involving minors.
Because it is a bipartisan compromise, the proposal has a strong chance of passing the House, congressional aides said. But it will have to vie with an alternative that will be introduced in the Senate by Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., who is looking for GOP sponsors. The Kennedy measure, which is closer to the administration's proposal, would give more power to the Justice Department official overseeing the INS divisions.
"In reforming the agency, we need to maintain strong overall leadership to ensure uniformity, efficiency and decisive action in a crisis," Kennedy said. "Now is not the time to diminish the power of the person running the nation's immigration agency."
Conyers said much negotiation remains. "This legislation is an important first step in tearing down the INS and replacing it with an agency that works," he said. Sensenbrenner said the plan would allow lawmakers to work "in concert with the Bush administration" to split the INS.
The agreement, scheduled for a Judiciary Committee hearing and vote on April 9 and 10, was also negotiated by Reps. George Gekas, R-Pa., chairman of the immigration subcommittee, and Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, the subcommittee's ranking Democrat. The legislation is unrelated to an administration proposal, presented to Bush by Cabinet members this week, to merge the INS with the Customs Service.
Angela Kelley, deputy director of the National Immigration Forum, an immigration rights group, said the bill is headed in the right direction. "There's no doubt that's a potent alliance when Conyers and Sensenbrenner come together to work on restructuring the INS," she said.
Larry Gonzalez, Washington director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, said he is "cautiously optimistic." Gonzalez said he is waiting to see what plan the Senate might introduce before his group takes a position.