- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 27, 2003

Plans by the Homeland Security Department to merge customs and immigration inspection at airports and seaports are provoking a growing chorus of criticism from unions and advocates of tougher immigration policy.

“We have serious concerns,” Charles Showalter of the National Immigration and Naturalization Service Council told UPI about the merger.

The INS Council is a labor union that represents 17,500 officials who do immigration, customs and agriculture inspections at the nation’s hundreds of ports of entry. Now that the INS has been rolled into Homeland Security, its members work for the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection (CBP).

Last month, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge announced an ambitious plan to merge the three services that currently deal with incoming travelers at U.S. ports and airports, saying that there would be “one face at the border.”

“We’re improving efficiency and effectiveness,” department spokesman Dennis Murphy said.

But Mr. Showalter said the merger will dilute the skills of the three distinct services, and advocates of a tougher immigration policy say the reorganization is likely to erode the ability of officials at the border to weed out undesirables trying to enter the country.

“If anything suffers,” Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies told UPI, “it will be immigration, rather than customs.”

Mr. Krikorian said that a “conflicted and ambivalent immigration policy right from the very top” of the Bush administration made it “difficult for immigration officers to do their job.” The immigration service effectively had been “transferred into” customs, he said, given that CBP chief Robert C. Bonner was formerly the head of the customs service and was sure how the reforms would pan out.

“A lot depends on the training,” Mr. Krikorian said, and the most important thing was a clear lead from the top.

Mr. Showalter said that the 71 days of basic training that officers of the new merged service will get is inadequate.

“If it takes six months to train a customs officer and six months to train an immigration inspector and six months to train an agricultural inspector, how can it take less than three months to train someone to do all three jobs?”

But Mr. Murphy said that experience at land borders — where a single officer had done the initial or “primary” customs and immigration inspections for more than a dozen years — belied that suggestion.

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