THE ASSOCIATED PRESS WASHINGTON (AP) - March 14, 2002 -- Issuing student visas to two Sept. 11 hijackers showed the Immigration and Naturalization Service was beyond salvation, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee said Thursday, and abolishing it was the only way out. The Bush administration, while expressing embarrassment, asked Congress to hold off to give the agency a chance to reform itself.
The episode "is indicative of the enormous mismanagement at the INS," said Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis. "This system is broke and this agency is broke." Sensenbrenner has introduced a bill that would split the INS in two, with one agency handling immigration services and the other responsible for border enforcement. He said his committee would vote on it April 10.
On Monday, Huffman Aviation in Venice, Fla., received student visa approval forms for Mohamed Atta and Marwan Al-Shehhi, two of the terrorists who flew hijacked jetliners into the World Trade Center six months ago. The two trained at Huffman in 2000 and early 2001 and applied for visas to attend technical schools.
Russ Bergeron, an INS spokesman, said the visa for Atta, an Egyptian, was approved last July and the visa for Al-Shehhi, from the United Arab Emirates, the following month, and the paperwork received by the flight school was a routine repeat of notifications the INS had given the men and the school last summer, before the attacks.
But Rep. Bob Barr, R-Ga., a co-sponsor of Sensenbrenner's bill, said the incident with the visas "proves once again, we cannot just tinker around the edges -- the INS needs to be completely reformed from top to bottom." Attorney General John Ashcroft said the visa blunder was "rather infuriating. ... A breakdown of this kind is inexcusable in my judgment."
Ashcroft said Congress had blocked the administration's efforts to reform the INS. "I would hope Congress would let Commissioner (James) Ziglar lead in reforming this troubled agency." Sensenbrenner said he had talked to both President Bush and Ashcroft about the future of the INS and was aware that Ziglar believes that improvements in the agency can be done administratively. "I know of no one in the House or Senate who agrees with him."
Sensenbrenner also urged the Senate to move quickly on a measure, passed in the House earlier this week as part of a larger immigration bill, that would require much tighter monitoring of foreigners granted student visas. The legislation sets the end of 2003 as a deadline for the State Department to exclusively issue tamperproof visas, and proposes a computerized tracking system to record when a foreign student is granted a visa, when he enters the country and enrolls in school, and when he leaves school.
Blaming INS workers rather than the contractor responsible for belatedly mailing out the visas was wrong, said the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents 24,000 INS employees. The union's national president, Bobby L. Harnage said INS workers "have been working 12-hour shifts to fight the war on terrorism" and that Congress is at fault for continuing to "blindly support the privatization of the federal government."