- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Support is growing in Congress to merge the two Homeland Security Department agencies assigned the task of border and immigration enforcement, and a House panel yesterday warned U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials to “find a way” to streamline operations.

“The department seems more interested in managing how they see it, not how the committee or the American people might feel,” said Rep. Kendrick B. Meek of Florida, ranking Democrat on the Homeland Security subcommittee on management, integration and oversight. “You have a real job of defending your position.

“I suggest you find a way to streamline your position … or we have a recipe for something bad happening in this country,” he said. “I don’t want to be a part of that. You don’t want to be a part of that.”

The subcommittee, chaired by Rep. Mike D. Rogers, Alabama Republican, is investigating whether Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) should be merged — based on a report by the department’s Office of Inspector General. The report said the nation’s border security and interior enforcement operations would be more effective if combined.

The report, made public last week, called ongoing immigration and customs operations inefficient, saying CBP and ICE — created in March 2003 when 22 agencies were combined as part of the Homeland Security Department— were incapable of coordinating their efforts in several major areas.

Assistant Inspector General Robert L. Ashbaugh told the subcommittee that the department’s organizational structure had resulted in “significant problems” in the apprehension and detention of illegal aliens, the sharing of investigative leads and the coordination of intelligence.

“Merging ICE and CBP would create a true border enforcement agency enhanced not only by the seamless integration of enforcement functions, but by the melding of customs and immigration authorities as well,” he said. “With such an entity, we believe DHS would be better prepared to fulfill its mission of protecting the homeland.”

Stewart Baker, assistant homeland security secretary for policy, argued against a merger, saying the time and money entailed would “set us back a year, and we can’t afford a year at this time in history.”

Mr. Baker said ICE was “well on the way to addressing” problems identified in the inspector general’s report, adding that a decision to merge the agencies would result in “an organizational mess.” He said the agency had been underfunded when created but that a reorganization plan by Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff had “reduced bureaucracy, improved accountability and enhanced coordination.”

But none of the six subcommittee members who attended the hearing voiced support for keeping the agencies separate.

The issue is expected to be addressed by the full committee. Chairman Peter T. King, New York Republican, has told the department to “address the inefficiencies and poor communication” between ICE and CBP.

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