ICE and CBP merger talk gets contentious

Merging the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) unit with the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) bureau would disrupt both organizations and set the Homeland Security Department back a year, DHS’ new assistant secretary for policy said this week.

Stewart Baker, testifying Nov. 15 for the first time since his confirmation, repeatedly told members of a House subcommittee that an inspector general’s report recommending the merger of the two bureaus would come at a staggering cost. He said the IG did not consider the consequences of a merger.

But Robert Ashbaugh, the department’s assistant IG for inspections and special reviews, said Baker is wrong. Ashbaugh said the change would benefit the department. He said the IG recommended the merger to address problems that ICE and CBP are having in coordinating detention and removal activities, investigations, and intelligence gathering and sharing.

“While costs would be associated with a merger, we believe that the costs of not merging would be greater,” Ashbaugh said at the Nov. 15 hearing of the Homeland Security Committee’s Management, Integration and Oversight Subcommittee. “Allowing the current organizational structure to stand would allow ICE and CBP to continue to drift further apart and operate too autonomously," he said.

The IG recommended that DHS develop joint intelligence products to provide a more comprehensive picture of border security and employ new technologies for analyzing and sharing intelligence information.

However, when asked by Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) whether the IG had assessed the bureaus' use of technology, Ashbaugh said the office had not looked at that issue.

Baker said the department did not disagree with the symptoms presented in the 175-page IG report, a formal draft of which was circulated in the department in late July. But he added that DHS disagrees with the prescription to merge the two bureaus.

Baker said the IG report didn't take into account improved relations between ICE and CBP officials since the report’s release. He said they have improved their coordination of detention and removal activities. They are also doing a better job of intelligence gathering and will show substantial improvement within a year, he added.

Rep. Kendrick Meek (D-Fla.) said a merger has bipartisan support because border security is too important to ignore. He told Baker that DHS' position is difficult to defend.

ICE and CBP were created in March 2003 when DHS was formed and the former Immigration and Naturalization Service was dissolved. CBP received INS and Customs’ inspections functions and the Border Patrol. ICE received INS and Customs’ investigative and intelligence functions and detention and removal resources.

But according Ashbaugh’s testimony, leaders at the Border and Transportation Security directorate “often failed to prevent CBP and ICE officials from working at cross purposes” and were slow to resolve conflicts between them.

Some department observers contend that ICE has lacked funding since its creation in 2003. The funding shortfall forced the bureau to institute a hiring freeze last fiscal year and curtail training, among other things.

Congress provided $369 million in supplemental funding last summer, which enabled the bureau to lift a hiring freeze. In fiscal 2006, the bureau plans to hire more law enforcement agents and deportation officers. Bureau officials also expect to provide about 2,000 new detention beds, according to information provided by ICE.

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