Monday, November 14, 2005

Concerned that the nation’s borders are not properly protected against terrorists, illegal aliens and drug smugglers, a Senate committee warned Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff that if he fails to correct the situation promptly, they will.

Sen. Susan Collins, Maine Republican and chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, and Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, the panel’s ranking Democrat, want to know whether U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) should be merged to “enable them to operate more effectively.”

In a report made public last week, the Homeland Security Department’s Office of Inspector General recommended that the two agencies — with overlapping jurisdiction for border security and immigration enforcement — be merged, questioning whether they had the ability as separate organizations to carry out their homeland security missions.

The report, requested by Mrs. Collins and Mr. Lieberman, said a lack of effective coordination between the agencies had affected apprehension, detention and removal efforts.

“This report presents a strong case that the status quo cannot be allowed to continue,” Mrs. Collins said. “[It] verifies what so many law-enforcement officials, current and former employees of the agencies, and well-respected outside groups have said — these two agencies are dysfunctional in their current structure.”

Mr. Lieberman said the report “exhaustively documented serious coordination problems” between ICE and CBP, adding that the “organizational difficulties have impeded the agencies’ investigations, intelligence sharing and their efforts to apprehend, detain and deport aliens.”

Several ICE supervisors and field agents have said the agency has struggled to establish a mission strategy and have criticized poor administrative systems.

Mr. Chertoff, in naming his former Justice Department chief of staff, Julie L. Myers, to lead ICE, has committed to giving the agency a chance to succeed.

Under a pending realignment plan, ICE and CBP remain as stand-alone agencies, reporting directly to Mr. Chertoff.

Mrs. Collins said she “discussed the matter” with Mr. Chertoff and that he should have more time to make structural changes. But, she warned, if significant changes are not made in a reasonable time frame, her committee would consider legislation merging the agencies.

CBP Commissioner Robert C. Bonner, who resigned from his position effective this month, said during an interview last week that he supported a merger of the two agencies, although it was Mr. Chertoff’s decision.

But in a Dec. 16, 2002, letter to Mr. Chertoff’s predecessor, Tom Ridge, before the creation of CBP and ICE, Mr. Bonner recommended against creating separate border-enforcement agencies, saying the split would be “exceedingly complicated and muddy.”

Meanwhile, a House Homeland Security subcommittee will hold a hearing tomorrow to discuss whether CBP and ICE should be merged.

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