Merger of ICE, CBP considered

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The Department of Homeland Security is examining a possible merger of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), under fire by disgruntled employees over accusations of mismanagement and low morale, with a sister agency, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP).

Homeland Security acting Inspector General Richard L. Skinner told department officials last week about the review, saying it was requested by Sen. Susan Collins, Maine Republican and chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

“The changes in the department’s leadership provide us with an opportunity to review the organization to ensure that it can function at peak efficiency,” Miss Collins said yesterday.

“I share concerns that the current structure of ICE and CBP may not be the most effective for keeping our borders secure and look forward to reviewing the inspector general’s findings on this matter.”

In a Feb. 8 memo, Mr. Skinner said his office will review historic and current operations of ICE and CBP, as well as their interactions with other Homeland Security entities. He said it also would interview top department officials in Washington and others “privy to the original discussions” concerning border and transportation security efforts at the department.

ICE supervisors and agents have complained for months that the agency, which was created in March 2003 as the investigative arm of Homeland Security, was a threat to the country’s national security efforts because of mismanagement, low morale, a lack of a clearly defined mission and ongoing financial problems.

Agency officials and congressional investigators said there have been preliminary discussions on a merger of ICE and CBP or the assignment of ICE as a separate Office of Investigations within CBP.

The discussions coincided with the release last month of a report by the Heritage Foundation and the Center for Strategic and International Studies that urged a “significant reorganization” of Homeland Security to consolidate and strengthen agencies with overlapping missions.

“Merging CBP and ICE will bring together under one roof all of the tools of effective border and immigration enforcement ” inspectors, Border Patrol agents, special agents, detention and removal officers and intelligence analysts ” and realize the objective of creating a single border and immigration enforcement agency,” the report said.

“The split of responsibilities between the CBP and ICE was done without a compelling reason, other than the vague and ultimately incorrect descriptive notion that CBP would handle border enforcement and ICE would handle interior enforcement,” it said. “Not one person has been able to coherently argue why the CBP and ICE were created as separate operational agencies.”

Homeland Security Assistant Secretary Michael J. Garcia, who heads ICE, has acknowledged budgetary and organizational challenges in creating an agency with 15,000 employees, but said ICE had become “an incredibly powerful tool” in the war on terrorism, immigration enforcement, alien and drug smuggling, and financial crimes.

ICE was created during the merger of the U.S. Customs Service, the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) and the Federal Protective Service. Criminal investigators from the Customs Service and INS were assigned to the ICE Office of Investigations and given the task of preventing a new terrorist attack.

But ICE’s ability to gather and share intelligence data, conduct counterterror investigations and enforce U.S. immigration laws has been challenged by both its supervisors and agents, and in dozens of letters and e-mails to Congress.

They said the agency remained fragmented, understaffed and underfunded, and burdened by a complex and mismanaged administrative system that lacked a definitive mission statement, adding that ICE’s investigative efforts had undergone a “functional paralysis.” Noting that while the fiscal 2005 budget called for a $300 million increase, ICE canceled all training, implemented a hard hiring freeze, ordered its cars parked, ended Spanish-language training for investigators, and limited spending and investigative activities.

A message Monday from Deputy Assistant Secretary John Clark, the No. 2 official at ICE, to all employees said the inquiry would focus on whether a merger of ICE and CBP “has any potential merit.”

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