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INS faulted for losing track of immigrants

The federal government could not find nearly half of the 4,112 registered immigrants it wanted to interview after the Sept. 11 attacks because the Immigration and Naturalization Service did not know where they were living, according to a report released Thursday.

Investigators for the General Accounting Office, Congress' watchdog arm, faulted the INS for failing to tell legal permanent immigrants that they must keep the government informed of their whereabouts. The GAO said that since the 1970s, the government has not enforced a law that calls for criminal penalties or even deportation of legal immigrants who fail to notify the government of a change of address within 10 days of moving.

The INS has been under fire since the terrorist attacks for failing to track aliens within U.S. borders, including two Sept. 11 hijackers who held INS-issued student visas. The embattled agency will soon cease to exist, and most of its functions will be absorbed by the new Department of Homeland Security.

The GAO report noted that in the aftermath of the attacks, Attorney General John Ashcroft directed federal prosecutors to interview thousands of aliens "who might have had knowledge of foreign terrorists or their organizations."

Of the 4,112 believed to still be in the country, 1,851, or 45 percent, could not be found. Most of those located agreed to be interviewed.

The GAO said the "INS had numerous difficulties locating aliens who represented a national security threat or who could help with the nation's antiterrorism efforts."

Among immigrants for whom the INS had incorrect addresses were 45 people in the San Diego area. Law enforcement officials said they might have known some of the Sept. 11 hijackers. At least two of the hijackers had said they were attending school in San Diego.

The government is supposed to have a comprehensive entry-exit immigration tracking system in place by 2005. The Justice Department's inspector general's office said the INS would likely miss a Jan. 30 deadline to complete a new system for tracking foreign students.

In a written response to the report, Robert Diegelman, acting assistant attorney general for administration at the INS, wrote that federal prosecutors will typically "decline to prosecute such minor offenses" as failure to provide INS with a forwarding address.

Diegelman said the INS has already taken steps to better publicize change of address requirements for immigrants and to make forms more readily available. He said the agency is also moving forward with plans to create a comprehensive central database of addresses.

The GAO agreed the system would never be flawless.

"It is reasonable to assume that the INS will never be able to know where every alien is located at any point in time because some aliens who are in the United States illegally may not want INS to know where they are," the report said.