Today, in a colossal bureaucratic reshuffle, the long-assailed Immigration and Naturalization Service will cease to exist -- a move causing widespread anxiety among groups that serve immigrant populations and the agency's 35,000 workers.
The many duties now handled by the INS are being incorporated into the new Department of Homeland Security. Despite a broad consensus that the immigration service is seriously mismanaged, the government's vague plans for how the new agency will work have raised fears that service and efficiency could deteriorate.
"The system's not working very well now, and all indications are that it could get worse," said Carl Shusterman, an immigration attorney in Los Angeles and former INS counsel here.
The potential for problems is particularly acute in California, where more than one in four residents are foreign-born. The state is home to the nation's largest immigrant population by far -- more than 9 million, according to census data, more than a quarter of the national total. California is also home to about a third of the nation's population of illegal immigrants, according to government estimates.
The government's plans call for the principal jobs of the INS to be parceled out among several new bureaus in the Homeland Security department, a behemoth bureaucracy born in response to the Sept. 11 attacks.
Under the new blueprint, the INS' enforcement and service responsibilities will be separated and then recombined with tasks now handled by the Customs Service and agriculture inspectors. The official makeover motto: "One Face at the Border."
Even fairly senior-level INS officials are in the dark about how that is all supposed to work.
At a recent meeting with inquisitive immigration attorneys in Los Angeles, senior agency managers explained that they were waiting for guidance from Washington, where dozens of working groups are said to be hammering out details.
"Right now, we don't hear much in the field," said Wayne K. Mills, acting INS deputy district director in Los Angeles.
Added Kevin Jeffrey, who heads the district's investigations branch: "I honestly don't know what we're going to be doing a month from now."
In their few public statements, managers of the homeland security department have vowed that good times are ahead.
"I'm confident we can use this new structure to do things better, and to provide a safer America, and at the same time provide better services for the immigrant population," said Asa Hutchinson, the former Drug Enforcement Administration chief who heads the new Border and Transportation Security Directorate. "Now, is it going to be perfect? No."
The agency's broad mandate includes processing millions of applications annually for an immense and complex array of benefits, while also being entrusted with the sensitive task of guarding the nation's land borders, airports and seaports.
On Wednesday, the INS launched a public relations campaign aimed at easing concerns about its imminent demise.
The agency is distributing banners, posters and pamphlets nationwide emphasizing that all current INS forms and documents remain valid.
"Yes, the INS technically ceases to exist at the end of this month, but we are committed to making this transition as seamless and smooth as possible," said Acting INS Commissioner Michael Garcia.
Not everyone is reassured. Interviews with those waiting for service at the Los Angeles INS office indicated that few members of the public know about the impending change. But INS officials said some panicked immigrants have contacted them, worried that pending paperwork -- some of which has been in the pipeline for years -- could be tossed aside.
One of the agency's lingering legacies is a backlog of more than 5 million applications, many still in paper format and not computerized.
Others wonder if their green cards (signifying lawful residence status) will expire as of today. (They won't, officials said.)
In contrast to the public, INS employees are acutely aware that change is coming. They have been circulating rumors of large-scale personnel shifts. Managers have had to reassure edgy staffers that their jobs will mostly stay the same in the short term, as will their bosses, salaries, benefits and union representation.
The INS, especially the Border Patrol, with its 10,000 uniformed officers, has suffered a significant loss of seasoned employees who have retired or fled to other jobs in and out of government.
"Employees should understand that they're still going to work for the same supervisor, in the same office, doing the same job, for some time yet," said one electronic message circulated among INS personnel last week.
Groups that lobby on behalf of immigrants worry that the mixing of duties could lead to mistreatment of immigrants.
"It all comes down to moving boxes around, but it could be box-moving with pretty profound consequences," said Angela Kelley, deputy director of the National Immigration Forum, which advocates on behalf of immigrants. "You now have all these inspectors who are going to be inspecting pigs and peanuts and people as if they were the same thing."
Others worry about resources being siphoned off for sweeps and other enforcement actions even as immigrants come under a growing cloud of suspicion nationwide.
"Since this is homeland security, people are afraid it will taint immigrants as potential threats rather than as benefits to society," said Greg Simons of the Committee for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles.
Beyond broad procedural questions, officials are confronting such mundane concerns as designing new uniforms, badges and immigration stamps while developing common radio frequencies, computer access, and even logos. The familiar INS eagle seal also is a goner as of today, as is the agency's Web site.
Planners also must merge the often dissimilar tasks of immigration, customs and agricultural inspectors -- and try to surmount the historical intra-service rivalries between the INS and the Customs Service.
"No one has any idea how this is going to play out," said one longtime INS official at Los Angeles International Airport, which, like other ports, is a particular source of concern in the post-Sept. 11 security environment. "Come March 1, it could be chaos."
The principle behind the change is that separating INS' service and enforcement functions will improve both sides of the bureaucracy.
Experts had long noted the fundamental inconsistency of an agency charged with keeping out many would-be immigrants while helping others achieve legal status and citizenship -- and simultaneously doing relatively little to search for and deport the millions of illegal immigrants already in the United States.
Making the dual missions more complicated is that the agency's overall workload has swollen in recent years. Immigration levels have risen sharply, lawmakers have changed the rules, and more and more visitors have come to the United States. Sept. 11 sharpened the focus on potential terrorist infiltrators.
The INS inspects about 500 million entries into the country each year -- more than 1 million a day.
The INS' "clients" include refugees and political dissidents eager to resettle in this country, tourists, longtime U.S. citizens trying to bring in loved ones, and Fortune 500 companies and prestigious universities importing talent from abroad. Each group has different priorities, some of which conflict.
"Part of our mission has always been to carry the burden that immigration policy is very difficult for this country," said one longtime INS headquarters staffer. "Everyone wants to have their cake and eat it too: Everyone wants to get rid of illegal aliens, but no one wants to get rid of cheap labor."
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Breakdown of Bureaus
As of today, the Immigration and Naturalization Service will be absorbed by the Department of Homeland Security. Assuming the INS' principal duties will be three new homeland security entities:
* Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services. Responsible for providing information to the public and processing applications for citizenship, legal residency, work permits, political asylum and other services. Designated chief: Eduardo Aguirre, currently vice chairman of the Export-Import Bank.
* Bureau of Customs and Border Protection. To focus on the movement of people and goods through land borders, airports and seaports. Will include the Border Patrol and inspectors from the INS, Customs Service and Department of Agriculture. To be headed by Robert C. Bonner, current customs commissioner.
* Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Emphasis on actions in the U.S. interior, including finding and expelling illegal immigrants. Joins the enforcement and investigative arms of the INS, Customs Service and the Federal Protective Services, which now provides security in federal buildings. Designated chief: Michael Garcia, a former federal prosecutor and acting INS commissioner.
In addition, the Department of Health and Human Services will assume responsibility for juveniles detained for immigration reasons.
For inquiries about immigration services, the National Customer Service Call Center will continue to be available at (800) 375-5283 (for the hearing impaired,  767-1833). Online information: www.immigration.gov.