Retain the INS

Immigration generates substantial political heat these days. But it was not always so. For years, the immigration machinery of the federal government operated out of the political spotlight, and relatively few people cared that its operations were less than efficient.

That has turned 180 degrees. The Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) is being targeted by many in Congress. Some want it overhauled. Not a few want it eliminated, with its duties farmed out to other agencies. The latter step, in fact, was recently recommended by a federal advisory commission.

The reasons for all this attention are complex. They include the use of immigration - specifically illegal immigration - as a vote-getting issue by Republicans. The Clinton administration played into that in the runup to the '96 election by allowing lax citizenship procedures, which critics saw as an attempt to naturalize more prospective Democratic voters.

But the most important reason for the focus on the INS is the growing number of people who want to come to the US, and the growing strain on the bureaucracy that deals with them.

Earlier this month, INS officials released a plan to more effectively process applications for citizenship. One indispensable step is computerization of INS procedures and records. Then applicants could have instant access to all the requirements for citizenship, to avoid later confusion. The INS would know who has applied and when, and what problems there may have been. Fingerprints can be digitized, making instant background checks possible.

Computers can also record multiple border crossing attempts and who has overstayed a visa.

The agency is also poised to resume control of the language and civics tests required for citizenship. In recent years, some testing has been farmed out to private agencies - often advocacy groups with an interest in turning immigrants into citizens. Fraud has been a problem.

These steps show an agency trying to do a better job. It makes sense to keep improving the current INS, rather than dismantling it. Congress should resist the political winds and let the INS continue to set a clearer course after years of relative drift.

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