The pending transfer of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s air and marine operations division to U.S. Customs and Border Protection is being hailed by rank-and-file agents in both agencies as a positive move in the government’s war on terrorism and its battle against illegal immigration and drug smuggling.
Agents in field offices from Texas to California said the transfer, based on recommendations after a lengthy review by officials at the Department of Homeland Security, will consolidate into one agency helicopters, airplanes and boats now dedicated to air and marine law enforcement but split between two agencies.
ICE’s air and marine division has more than 1,000 employees and a fleet of 134 aircraft and 72 vessels, including Black Hawk helicopters, Citation aircraft and numerous “go-fast” boats. It maintains 10 branches, two surveillance-support centers, 11 air units and 16 marine units, located across the southern tier of the United States and Puerto Rico. It is expected to open two new branches in Bellingham, Wash., and Plattsburgh, N.Y., this year.
CBP, which is responsible for managing, controlling and protecting the nation’s borders at and between the ports of entry, maintains 115 helicopters and airplanes, and 102 patrol boats, most of which are used by the Border Patrol.
Led by Commissioner Robert C. Bonner, the CBP has 41,000 inspectors and agents from the U.S. Customs Service, U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service and the entire U.S. Border Patrol, who were merged into a single agency in March 2003.
Earlier this year, Rep. Christopher Cox, California Republican and chairman of the Select Committee on Homeland Security, noted that ICE, CBP, the U.S. Coast Guard and the Transportation Security Administration all had air and marine divisions and suggested that Homeland Security consider ways to consolidate efforts where missions and needs overlapped.
“An integrated modernization program could result in cost savings to the government as well as sharper focus on the security mission,” he said during a May hearing. “It also could enable Coast Guard, ICE and CBP air, surveillance and maritime asset operators to achieve other advantages and efficiencies, such as joint training of employees, shared repair and maintenance facilities, and increased communications interoperability.
“It is imperative, in the event of an attack, that there be seamless coordination of efforts among these agencies,” he said.
The Senate Appropriations Committee this year also said “potential redundancies in the areas of air and marine interdiction” had created two separate air and marine operations within ICE and CBP.
The committee also said that while it was aware a review was under way at Homeland Security, it had started slowly and had caused a delay in the planning necessary to replace aging Vietnam-era aircraft now in use. The panel called for department recommendations on the matter no later than Feb. 15.
Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge ordered the review to “enhance efficiencies in existing resources.” He said that, because the principal focus of the air and marine division was interdiction, its “natural location” rested more with CBP than with ICE.
“There will be no degradation of the [air and marine] mission, only an improvement in operating efficiencies as the two air and marine elements of ICE and CBP are brought together in one agency,” he said.