Although employees at the Immigration and Naturalization Service are nervous about moving into the Homeland Security Department, the immediate impact of the transition on most of the workforce will be minimal, a senior official at the agency said Thursday.
"There is tremendous anxiety within the agency itself," said INS Deputy Commissioner Mike Becraft at a forum sponsored by the Migration Policy Institute, a Washington think tank. But most employees will not feel the full effects of a transition immediately, and there are no short-term plans to physically move workers from INS' current headquarters to another location, Becraft said.
Though Becraft did not rule out moving INS employees from agency headquarters in Northwest Washington in the future, he said he could not see that happening "short-term."
"It will be quite a while before any moves [and] that would be a major move," he said. Officials in the White House and the General Services Administration are leading the search for the Homeland Security Department's headquarters.
The INS, now part of the Justice Department, is the only agency moving into Homeland Security that will be abolished and then completely reorganized in the new department. The 2002 Homeland Security Act separates the immigration services branch of the INS from the agency's border enforcement responsibilities. The law also creates a director of shared services, who will oversee information sharing between the two branches, and an immigration ombudsman.
The official transfer of INS functions into the Homeland Security Department is slated for March 1.
Becraft, who is overseeing the transition, said the reorganization plan is a "good compromise." Though previous INS restructuring plans over the years have generally called for one agency head to oversee a revamped INS, the current administration's plan "could have been worse," Becraft said.
The INS reorganization affects an agency with 36,000 employees and between 6,000 and 9,000 contractors. Employees' emotions run from terrified to exhilarated, Becraft said. He said the change is especially "melancholy" for older employees who have worked at the agency for a long time.
But Becraft said INS employees are determined to make the reorganization work. "I have a team of some of the best people in the agency, from old-timers to PMIs [presidential management interns], and they are excited [about the transition] and want to get it right," Becraft said.
But T.J. Bonner, president of the National Border Patrol Council, said morale at the Boder Patrol is "lower than I have ever seen it." The council is part of the American Federation of Government Employees. Border Patrol agents are "applying for every job imaginable," or "counting the days to retirement," he said.
Even before the creation of the Homeland Security Department, morale among the agency's 9,800 Border Patrol agents was low, Bonner said. He testified in April at a House hearing that the INS lost 102 Border Patrol agents to other federal agencies between October 2001 and January 2002.
Border Patrol agents and immigration inspectors at the GS-9 level are typically paid between $35,000 and $45,000, about $25,000 less than many of their federal counterparts in law enforcement, Bonner told members of a House Government Reform subcommittee.