Leaders lacking at U.S. border agencies

The two agencies charged with immigration enforcement and border security are officially leaderless today as some members of Congress are calling for their merger and questioning their effectiveness.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Commissioner Robert C. Bonner, who has led the agency since its March 2003 creation, leaves office today to return to private law practice, and Julie L. Myers, former White House aide named to head U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), has yet to be confirmed.

The Department of Homeland Security agencies have been hamstrung over calls by the department’s Office of Inspector General that they be merged.

Although she was nominated by President Bush in June to head ICE, the Senate has yet to confirm Mrs. Myers, 36, a former chief of staff to Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff when he headed the criminal division at the Justice Department. Some on Capitol Hill, along with ICE supervisors and field agents, have questioned her credentials to lead an agency with more than 20,000 employees and an annual budget of $4 billion.

The inspector general’s report said under the current structure, immigration and customs operations were inefficient, and that ICE and CBP standing alone were incapable of coordinating efforts in several major areas.

Assistant Inspector General Robert L. Ashbaugh told a House subcommittee last week that the current structure created “significant problems” in apprehending and detaining illegal aliens, sharing investigative leads and coordinating intelligence.

Mr. Ashbaugh said merging the agencies would “create a true border enforcement agency enhanced not only by the … integration of enforcement functions, but by the melding of customs and immigration authorities.”

But Stewart Baker, assistant Homeland Security secretary for policy, told the subcommittee that the time and money required would “set us back a year, and we can’t afford a year.” He said a decision to merge the agencies would result in “an organizational mess.”

ICE and CBP have overlapping jurisdiction for border security and immigration enforcement, and some on Capitol Hill have expressed skepticism about Mr. Chertoff’s restructuring program and his decision not to merge the agencies.

Last week, the House Homeland Security Committee approved a bill that hires 8,000 more U.S. Border Patrol agents and 1,000 new port inspectors over the next four years. It also approved 32,000 more beds to detain illegal aliens; more physical barriers on the border; and new surveillance technology.

But an amendment to the bill by Rep. Kendrick B. Meek, Florida Democrat, to merge CBP and ICE was withdrawn after committee members said Mr. Chertoff’s reorganization plan should be given more time. The bill does require Mr. Chertoff to “take immediate action” to improve efficiency and communication between the two agencies.

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