Monday, December 20, 2004

A growing number of disgruntled U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents — concerned about mismanagement, financial problems and low morale — say ICE should be merged into a sister agency, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), to ensure its ability to fight terrorism.

“As a longtime ICE employee and legacy Customs special agent, I wonder when we will see changes. We can’t continue in our current state, or we will implode,” said a former U.S. Customs Service agent assigned to ICE when the agency was created in March 2003 as a part of the Department of Homeland Security.

“Every week, senior agents are retiring. No one wants anything to do with ICE,” said an agency supervisor who heads an ICE field office. “This is a huge debacle for the national security of the country.”

Another veteran agent, noting what he called a lack of a clearly defined mission, said: “Most of the people I talk with have a defeatist attitude — that the train is not just derailed, but the track and track bed has been removed, and nothing can be done to fix it.”

Those comments, by the agents who requested anonymity for fear of retribution, were similar to others expressed during interviews with ICE employees from New York to California.

As the Homeland Security Department approaches its second anniversary, officials inside the department and congressional investigators said preliminary discussions have taken place on a merger of ICE and Customs and Border Protection, or the assignment of ICE as a separate Office of Investigations within CBP.

Those discussions coincide with the release this 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.

The report specifically recommended that CBP and ICE be merged.

“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. “Indeed, in various interviews, not one person has been able to coherently argue why the CBP and ICE were created as separate operational agencies.”

The report said the decision to put CBP and ICE into separate agencies could be compared to a move by the New York Police Department to house its uniformed “beat cops” in one agency and its detectives in another.

Tasia Scolinos, Homeland Security’s deputy assistant secretary for public affairs, said there are “no discussions under way” regarding a change in the structure of the department’s border agencies.

She said Congress created Homeland Security’s existing structure “to allow for focus and expertise within key areas, and we remain supportive of that concept.”

Homeland Security Assistant Secretary Michael J. Garcia, who heads ICE, said that while there have been budgetary and organizational challenges in creating an agency with 15,000 employees and that he was aware of “anxiety in the field,” ICE has been “very successful” during its 19-month existence.

Mr. Garcia described the agency as “an incredibly powerful tool” in the war on terrorism, immigration enforcement, alien and drug smuggling, and financial crimes.

“We haven’t looked at what would be easy, but what would be effective in putting this agency together,” Mr. Garcia said during an interview at ICE headquarters in Washington. “Moving several powerful agencies into one to better protect our borders and guard against terrorism is unprecedented, but we are further down the road than anyone would have guessed.”

Deputy Assistant Secretary John P. Clark, whose primary responsibility at ICE is to coordinate the integration of the offices of investigations, intelligence, detention and removal, along with the Federal Protective Service, conceded that budgetary problems within the agency had added to the concerns of many supervisors and agents.

But, he said, they had not affected ICE’s ability to carry out its assignments.

“If you look at our accomplishments, you will see we have not missed a beat,” Mr. Clark said. “Accusations to the contrary are not as widespread as some have portrayed. The agents understand what we are doing and why. They accept the new missions, recognize the problems and are getting the job done.”

Mr. Garcia and Mr. Clark also said they have held, and would continue to hold, town hall meetings nationwide to discuss problems and concerns with ICE supervisors and agents. They described those meetings as “productive,” saying they were bewildered that ICE personnel indicated they feared a “management backlash” for speaking out against the agency.

“No one should think that by speaking out there will be some kind of retribution,” Mr. Garcia said. “We don’t, and we haven’t.”

The report by the two Washington think tanks said missions within CBP and ICE “overlapped to greater or lesser extents.” And because the agencies had resided in different departments before Homeland Security was created, it was “difficult to resolve operational and policy conflicts without open turf warfare or resorting to the cumbersome interagency process.”

With the March 1, 2003, establishment of Homeland Security, ICE was created from a merger of Customs, the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service and the Federal Protective Service. Criminal investigators from Customs and INS were assigned to the ICE Office of Investigations, and given the task of preventing a new terrorist attack.

ICE’s ability to gather and share intelligence data, conduct counterterror investigations and enforce U.S. immigration laws was challenged during interviews with several ICE supervisors and agents, and in dozens of letters and e-mails sent to members of Congress and to the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association, which represents the agents.

Investigators for at least two congressional committees are reviewing the accusations and have met with ICE supervisors and agents to discuss the issues.

But ICE supervisors and agents said the agency remains fragmented, understaffed and underfunded, burdened by what they called a complex administrative system that is both mismanaged and lacks a definitive mission statement.

They said ICE’s investigative efforts have undergone a “functional paralysis,” noting that while the fiscal 2005 budget called for a $300 million increase, ICE canceled all training, let go personnel at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center, implemented a hard hiring freeze, ordered its cars parked, ended Spanish-language training for investigators, and limited spending and investigative activities.

Nearly two years after ICE’s creation, there has been little reconciliation between former Customs and former INS agents now assigned to the agency — most of whom still refer to themselves as either “legacy Customs” and “legacy INS,” but not ICE.

One former INS investigator, assigned to ICE at the time of the agency’s creation, also argued that legacy INS agents feel they were “taken over” by ICE, rather than merged. The investigator said the management ranks within the ICE Office of Investigations is made up entirely of former Customs managers.

“This has created ill will at the field levels among ex-INS agents in that we feel there is no one willing to speak for legacy INS. We are considered as second-class agents, even though our experience levels are at a higher level in some cases,” the investigator said.

The agents also noted it took Homeland Security 14 months after the creation of ICE for ex-INS investigators in the agency to be promoted from GS-12 to GS-13 in the general schedule pay system to bring them to the same level as investigators assigned from Customs. The promotion included pay raises ranging from 6 percent to 15 percent.

“They keep telling us we’re not second-class citizens here,” said one former INS investigator. “I guess if they say it long enough, it’s supposed to come true.”

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