DURING budget discussions held last year at the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the head of the United States Border Patrol asked if money allocated to buy replacement handguns and bulletproof vests for his agents could instead be spent on computers.
That's just one indication of how hungry the INS has been lately to enter the modern information age. In a single year, the INS processes 480 million travelers through more than 250 ports of entry into the US. It maintains files on 44 million aliens. In San Diego, it arrests 1,000 people nightly.
Yet, most INS field offices are lucky to have a typewriter and carbon paper, says Ron Collison, INS associate commissioner for Information Resources Management. A few offices do have personal computers, but they are too old to be used with current software.
The announcement last week of the largest contract award in the agency's history marks the beginning of the transition to what Mr. Collison says will be state-of-the-art data processing and information sharing.
''The INS will be a world-class provider of services to the taxpayer,'' he predicts.
The contract for an ''information technology partnership'' was awarded to Electronic Data Systems Corporation (EDS) of Plano, Texas. The one-year contract has four annual renewal options, with a maximum value over the course of five years of $300 million.
Randy Dove, an EDS spokesman, called the contract ''very significant.'' EDS had revenues last year of $8.5 billion, 10 percent of which came from the company's Federal Systems Division, which will handle the INS contract.
The INS spent $1.6 billion in fiscal year 1994 processing applications for green cards, seizing drugs, expelling illegal aliens, patrolling the borders, and naturalizing immigrants.
The money for computerization will come from the crime bill Congress passed late last month. The first year's supplement amounts to $154 million. Part of that amount will help fund the EDS contract; the rest will pay for computer hardware and software.
EDS will likely recommend purchasing commercially available software, when possible, rather than writing software programs itself. ''We will do whatever is best for the customer,'' Mr. Dove says. Adds Collison: ''We're 100 percent committed to not reinventing the wheel.''
One example of software the EDS might choose is ''group ware,'' which links computers at different locations and keeps their databases synchronized. At General Motors Corporation, which is both an EDS client and its parent company, EDS plans to install the Lotus Development Corporation's ''Notes'' group ware on 40,000 computers.
For many of the INS's special tasks, however, no ''off the shelf'' software is available, Collison says. He cites the Enforcement Case Tracking System (ENFORCE), of which an initial prototype is used by INS field offices in McAllen, Texas, and San Diego.
ENFORCE, which was developed in-house by the INS, enables agents to fill out forms in one minute that previously took five minutes by hand, offering a potential savings of 35,000 man-hours, or $700,000. However, the McAllen and San Diego systems do not share data with other INS offices. With the help of EDS, the naturalization service will further refine and deploy the system.
Computers will also support border-monitoring activities involving night vision, ground-motion sensors, and encrypted radio transmissions, Collison says. And that's just on the enforcement side of operations, which the crime bill specifically supports. EDS will also assist computerization efforts related to legal immigrants and agency administration.
EDS beat out eight other bidders to win the contract. The INS has not made the bids public, but spokesmen say that EDS offered the most for the money.
''[At] other places I've worked, automation is a big yawner,'' says Collison, who held a similar position at the headquarters of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration for five years before joining the immigration service 18 months ago.
''We've got everything we need to make a difference. That opportunity only comes once,'' he says.