A Senate proposal to abolish the Immigration and Naturalization Service and replace it with a new, reorganized Justice Department agency got a cautiously positive reception yesterday from the head of the INS.

Doris Meissner told the Senate Judiciary immigration subcommittee that she agrees her agency needs an overhaul, even though she disagrees with some details of the proposal. She said the INS structure that blends keeping illegal aliens out and processing legal immigrants is "a strained structure designed for a different era."

"I am committed to change," she said.

The panel's chairman, Sen. Spencer Abraham (R-Mich.), is sponsoring a bill that would replace the INS with an Immigration Affairs Agency that would have two bureaus -- one to enforce immigration laws and patrol the borders and another to handle the cases of legal immigrants.

The proposed agency's leader and the heads of both bureaus would be appointed by the president and approved by the Senate.

Abraham said his proposal is meant to solve long-standing problems with the INS. The agency's unwieldy management structure has contributed to lengthy backlogs in processing immigration visa and citizenship requests, as well as overcrowded detention centers and other lapses as it tries to block illegal immigration.

"We cannot expect the INS to be the good service provider by day and the tough cop by night," Abraham said.

He cited the case of suspected serial killer Angel Maturino Resendiz, who was apprehended at the border and released to Mexico even after police alerted the INS this summer that he was a murder suspect. Resendiz surrendered in July.

Abraham and other backers of the bill said reorganizing the INS alone would not solve the problems if the new agency lacks good management.

"None of us believes that reorganization is a panacea," said Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.).

Abraham's proposal has bipartisan support -- a co-sponsor is Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) -- and backing from groups representing INS agents, immigration lawyers and legal immigrants.

Several of the groups that back the Senate measure are critical of a House proposal, sponsored by Rep. Harold Rogers (R-Ky.), that would split the INS into two separate bureaus within the Justice Department. That separation "would make it virtually impossible to articulate or implement a coherent, unified immigration policy," said Warren Leiden of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.

Backers of the House bill said they were encouraged the Senate is tackling the issue, noting that both measures have a long way to go before they can come to a final vote.