Picking up where they left off last year, a bipartisan group of House members is again seeking to abolish the beleaguered immigration service and separate its service and enforcement functions.

A bill that lawmakers plan to introduce today would break up the Immigration and Naturalization Service and create two bureaus in the Justice Department to replace it. A Bureau of Immigration Services would process applications for visas, U.S. citizenship, asylum, refugee status and other benefits. A separate Bureau of Immigration Enforcement would oversee the Border Patrol, inspections at airports and other entry points, investigations, detentions and deportations.

Sponsored by Reps. Harold Rogers (R-Ky.), Lamar S. Smith (R-Tex.) and Silvestre Reyes (D-Tex.), the bill is the latest in a series of proposals to reform the INS, a 31,000-employee agency that they charge is "overwhelmed" by its "conflicting responsibilities." Rogers and Smith respectively chair the House Appropriations and Judiciary subcommittees with jurisdiction over the INS. Reyes is a former Border Patrol sector chief.

Rogers and Reyes last year advanced separate bills to reorganize the INS, but the proposals fell by the wayside during the debate over impeaching President Clinton.

The INS has crafted its own reorganization program aimed in part at heading off more drastic proposals. It plans to set up separate structures to administer benefits and enforcement, but keep them under the same INS roof within the Justice Department.

Maria Echaveste, White House deputy chief of staff, said the administration "is absolutely committed to fundamental change in the way the INS conducts its business" and supports separating enforcement from services. But a "single immigration official" must remain in overall charge of the two functions to maintain "clear lines of authority and accountability," she said.

The INS plan is strongly opposed by the agency's powerful district directors, who say it would solve none of the INS's most pressing problems. Among these are huge backlogs of applications for immigration benefits, with 1.8 million people waiting for citizenship.

The House bill would require the directors of the two new bureaus to report to the deputy attorney general. The bill also would install "chief financial officers" in each bureau to ensure that funds are properly spent. INS employees would be protected for one year from termination or reduction in pay, and the number of authorized positions would not be cut.

INS detention operations would be transferred to the U.S. Bureau of Prisons within four years, the bill says.

The proposal does not detail how the new bureaus would be structured or funded, but calls on the attorney general to work out such matters in an implementation plan.

While there is no comparable Senate bill yet, immigration advocates said the new proposal appears to have a better chance of getting off the ground than last year's efforts, largely because there is now widespread agreement that some sort of reform is needed.

However, some of the INS's fiercest critics strongly oppose the House plan, fearing it would only make matters worse.

"We want reform more than anyone," said Frank Sharry, director of the National Immigration Forum. "This is an agency that's in the intensive care unit. But this proposal will push it into the graveyard." He said the House plan would likely "cripple services, eviscerate accountability and even weaken enforcement."

A main worry, he said, is that there would be no one in charge to avoid "dueling bureaucracies."

CAPTION: Rep. Lamar S. Smith seeks to separate INS services, enforcement.