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Jamming the Homeland Security Flow By: Bill West
FrontPageMagazine.com | Monday, March 22, 2004


The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has just celebrated its first anniversary as a real Cabinet Department, fully implemented as of March 1, 2003.  The general results over the past year, given the size and mission of the new Department, have by government standards been fairly remarkable, a tribute to the hard-working personnel within the Department who recognize the critical role they play in the Nation’s security.  Recent object reviews of DHS’ organizational structure and its evolving mission accomplishments, however, indicate the Department is earning mediocre grades in many areas.  Tempered with the scope, timing and circumstances of the Department’s creation, maybe mediocre isn’t so bad.  Given the nature of the Department’s responsibilities, can mediocre really be acceptable?

The Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) ceased to exist on March 1, 2003 when its major components were merged into Homeland Security.  The ghost of INS seems to haunt DHS.  Before the 9-11 attacks, proposals were being seriously considered to reorganizing the INS because it was an agency hopelessly flawed in its structure and execution.  The creation of Homeland Security provided the vehicle to abolish the INS and provide continuity to its immigration enforcement and benefit functions under the new Department.  The INS was a dual mission agency.  It granted benefits to aliens and it enforced the Nation’s immigration and nationality laws.  To do these missions, the INS had several Divisions, including four different law enforcement Divisions (Border Patrol, Investigations, Inspections, Detention and Removal). 

Under Homeland Security, the immigration benefit-granting agency is the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services (CIS).  CIS is a stand-alone agency strictly focused on adjudicating benefit applications such as legal residency and citizenship.  Citizenship and Immigration Services managers are now full-fledged social workers for aliens in the US and are no longer INS District Directors or Officers-in-Charge encumbered with pesky law enforcement management issues, which was one of the main reasons INS was such a management mess.

The Border Patrol and INS Inspections Divisions were combined with the US Customs Inspection Division and the Department of Agriculture Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) to become the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection (CBP).  The mission of CBP is to secure the borders at ports-of-entry and in between those ports.  Its mission is straightforward and well supported and the various agencies have merged fairly well.  The Border Patrol has essentially transitioned intact, with mainly the addition of a new uniform patch. 

A constant negative element in the one-year reviews of the Department of Homeland Security has been the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).  ICE is the investigative law enforcement agency of Homeland Security, and was created from what had been the US Customs Office of Investigations (OI), the INS Investigations Division, the INS Detention and Removal Division, the Federal Protective Service (FPS) and the Federal Air Marshals Service.  ICE is an agency that has investigative law enforcement jurisdiction over everything from alien smuggling to zoning violations in Federal buildings.  Therein lies part of the problem.  ICE is composed of what had been five different law enforcement organizations, four of which came from completely different agencies.  The two primary investigative components, what had been US Customs OI and INS Investigations Division, had mission commonality only to the extent that it shared the border.  Customs focused on “things” and INS focused on people.  The body of Federal law each agency investigated was completely separate.  It is true that Customs Special Agents often worked with INS Special agents; but that was generally because their suspects often turned out to be aliens and those aliens often violated immigration law (a notoriously complex and ever-changing mix of criminal and civil statutes).  There was a symbiotic working relationship, as there is among many different law enforcement agencies, but the nuts and bolts of the actual investigative work was notably different between what a Customs Special Agent did and what an INS Special Agent did.

Toss in the uniformed Detention Officers and plainclothes Deportation and Removal Officers of the former INS Detention and Removal Division, the uniformed Federal Protective Officers and the plainclothes Special Agents of the FPS and, of course, the Federal Air Marshals, and we have what we have, a huge Federal law enforcement agency with wide jurisdiction and authority which was recently created from a diverse set of very different agencies with personnel that have significantly different law enforcement field experiences.  ICE is a work in progress.

Interestingly, the ICE chain of command structure is hardly a model of total integration at the field level.  It allows for autonomy for the Immigration Detention and Removal Division, FPS and Air Marshals.  Those field managers report to respective managers at ICE Headquarters.  The ICE Special Agents in Charge (SAC) offices, where most investigative work occurs, are composed of former Customs and INS Special Agents.  The majority of the ICE SACs are former Customs personnel.  (A bit of law enforcement history is due here.  Customs Office of Investigations enjoyed a singular law enforcement mission chain of command for decades, and its procedures were generally efficient and well suited to criminal investigative operations.  The INS Investigations Division suffered under the antiquated INS District structure, wherein Special Agents in the field reported to a civilian bureaucrat District Director who may or may not have had any law enforcement experience or focus, but who also had responsibility for the benefits side of INS operations in the field.  This convoluted operational chain of command was one of the critical flaws in the INS structure, and is the primary reason there was never a truly national-level INS law enforcement capability.)

The former INS Special Agents within Immigration and Customs Enforcement number around 2,000, while there are nearly 3,500 former Customs Special Agents.  While the official statements from ICE management say integration of personnel and missions is going well, candid discussions with field agents around the country indicate otherwise.  There appears to be continued lack of mission compatibility between former Customs and INS Special Agents in many areas, with former INS Agents often being relegated to lower level casework.  The morale level in the field in many ICE investigative offices is reportedly low, with former Customs managers, who are mostly running the field offices, allegedly showing little interest in pursuing immigration-related cases.

In spite of this, Immigration and Customs Enforcement has announced some high profile successes, even immigration-related successes such as the arrest of human rights persecutors under its Operation No Safe Haven and the launching of its absconder apprehension program.  Notwithstanding those few notable successes, there may be something troubling here.  While border enforcement seems to be working fairly smoothly under Customs and Border Protection and Citizenship and Immigration Services is happily giving away immigration benefits, interior immigration law enforcement does not really appear to be a high priority.  It never was with INS.  The Investigations Division was never allowed to evolve as a national criminal investigative organization capable of truly effective multi-jurisdictional investigative casework that would have made meaningful impact against large-scale alien smugglers, fraud scheme arrangers and perpetrators, false document manufacturers and vendors, terror groups and organized crime syndicates trafficking in illegal aliens and related serious immigration crime.  This is not a reflection on the Special Agents, who mostly were and are dedicated professionals trying to do an often dangerous and mostly thankless job under difficult circumstances at best.  However, it’s not entirely clear what the interior immigration enforcement priorities are under ICE. 

If the evolution of Immigration and Customs Enforcement does not realize what should be a strong effort toward genuine, nationwide immigration criminal investigative mission focus, traded in favor of operations against deportation hearing absconders and the processing of criminal aliens already in jail, then a major component of overall immigration law enforcement will be abandoned.  Homeland Security and ICE management will no doubt say that such efforts will be vigorously pursued.  Rumblings from the field strongly indicate otherwise.  Maybe the right folks in Congress should listen to those rumblings. 

Bill West retired as the Chief of the National Security Section for the INS in Miami, Florida in 2003 and is now a consultant for a Washington, DC-based counter-terrorism research institute.


Bill West is a retired INS/ICE Supervisory Special Agent who ran organized crime and national security investigations. He is now a counter-terrorism consultant and freelance writer.


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