Senate Judiciary Immigration Subcommittee Chairman Spencer Abraham, R-Mich., Thursday convened the first in a series of hearings to examine Immigration and Naturalization Service restructuring, while the counterpart subcommittee in the House approved a bill authorizing $82 million to help the agency clear its application backlog.
"I think the [Senate] subcommittee needs to take a step back and to start with first principles before determining exactly how the immigration functions performed by the government should best be organized," Abraham said.
Abraham has not endorsed any proposal and will most likely introduce his own plan early next year, an aide said. Future Senate hearings are planned to examine the agency's enforcement function.
During the Senate hearing, which focused on the agency's record of customer service for immigrants, INS Commissioner Doris Meissner outlined her agency's proposal to divide its now- combined service and enforcement operations into separate "chains of command" that would be coordinated at the top of the INS.
"The issue of customer service has not gotten as much attention as it deserves," Meissner said.
Meissner acknowledged her agency's great backlog in cases and cited "an avalanche of applications" that followed a new law implemented in 1995, which allowed people to adjust their status through INS rather than through State Department consulates.
She said overhauling the naturalization process has made the delays worse, but said the INS has made progress with new fingerprinting centers, phone centers and other improvements. However, she added that the INS' service function continues to operate understaffed and underfunded.
The INS restructuring proposal would replace regional and district INS offices with local offices charged with a singular purpose.
In addition to the INS plan, House Judiciary Immigration and Claims Subcommittee Chairman Lamar Smith, R-Texas, also is considering separate and more far-reaching proposals sponsored by Reps. Harold Rogers, R-Ky., and Silvestre Reyes, D-Texas.
On Thursday, Smith's subcommittee by a party-line 5-2 vote approved $82 million in additional funds to help the INS clear its backlog of processing in applications, while also requiring the INS to verify the good moral character of applicants.