Border Skirmish

Competing missions put pressure on new CBP commissioner to rethink staffing and resources.

An 11th grade teacher imparted some advice that W. Ralph Basham carries with him three decades later. "You're going to learn a lot more in life when you're not talking," Basham recalls.

Many people will be overjoyed to know he thinks so highly of listening. The job Basham began in June, as the new commissioner of the Homeland Security Department's Customs and Border Protection bureau, is at the heart of a tempestuous national debate over immigration and border security. If his ears are open, they will be in great demand.

The 42,000-employee bureau is responsible for a 1,900-mile border with Mexico, a 5,000-mile Canadian border, 95,000 miles of shoreline and 317 ports of entry. As the immigration firestorm swells, CBP must continue adding thousands of employees, work with DHS to launch a massive procurement for border security technology and keep up ongoing programs to improve screening of cargo at seaports. At the same time, the bureau must assuage the concerns of those who think the department is doing too little to stem the tide of illegal immigration and those who worry new enforcement measures will hinder the business community.

It's a large enough responsibility that Basham did not immediately jump at the possibility of taking over CBP when President Bush first discussed it with him in December. "It gave me some amount of pause," the former Secret Service director says. "This is a huge job."

Impressed by its employees and believing he could help the agency, Basham accepted the nomination. After his Senate confirmation in May, his schedule filled up almost immediately. In his first week on the job in early June, Basham visited sites along the southwest border and followed up with another trip to Arizona the next week. It's simple to make pronouncements about border security from Washington, he says, but another matter when you see in person what CBP officers face. "I thought it was important I get down there quickly," he says.

Basham's empathy stems from his career path, which began with a special agent position in the Washington field office of the Secret Service in 1970. Working in both the protective and investigative wings (the Secret Service probes financial crimes in addition to its more famous protective service details), Basham soon ascended to the management ranks. He led the Washington and Cleveland field offices and the vice presidential protective division, among other positions. In January 1998, Basham was appointed director of the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Glynco, Ga., which instructs nearly all federal officers, including those from Border Patrol, Customs and the now defunct Immigration and Naturalization Service, the three agencies that were merged to form CBP in March 2003.

After Sept. 11, 2001, Basham received a call from John McGaw, a former Secret Service director he had worked with for many years, asking him to come to Washington to help create the Transportation Security Administration as part of the newly formed DHS. Basham was driving back to his "beautiful home" on St. Simons Island, he says, a popular vacation spot along the Georgia coast, a place he calls "paradise." But Basham talked with his wife, Judy, and they both agreed that the job of securing commercial aviation was more important. "I didn't have a choice but to accept John's request," he says.

Once in Washington as chief of staff at TSA, Basham's lifestyle swung from paradise to the other end of the spectrum. "All I can say is there were days when I was getting and sending e-mails at 2 a.m. on Sunday," he recalls. "There literally was no time off."

Along with two other prominent players standing up the agency, Basham and company had to hire a 44,000-person workforce of federal checkpoint screeners-called by some observers one of the largest peacetime mobilizations in American history-as well as name 158 federal security directors for airports, and increase the deployment of air marshals on commercial flights, among other tasks. "We literally had to hire people to hire people," he recalls.

Basham speaks glowingly of the effort government and private sector workers contributed in establishing the agency. In 2003, he returned to the Secret Service to become its director, and led the agency through its transition from the Treasury Department to DHS.

Despite his extensive management experience in homeland security, his nomination came as a surprise. After the resignation in September of CBP's first and only commissioner, Robert C. Bonner, a much talked about search for a successor ensued, and Basham was not on the shortlist of many observers.

"He has not been a person who has promoted himself," says David M. Olive, a founder of the lobbying and public affairs firm Olive, Edwards & Brinkmann LLC in Washington and a former chief of staff for Asa Hutchinson, who served in Congress and later was DHS undersecretary for Border and Transportation Security from 2003 to 2005. "He's always had what on the Hill you call a staff mentality: Get the job done and give credit where it's due and then move on."

Few are questioning the selection of Basham. The jovial 62-year-old is approachable and enthusiastic (he jogs more than 15 miles a week on the National Mall). He likes to rib his staff good-naturedly and at the same time the Owensboro, Ky., native seems willing to admit what he doesn't know. "My learning curve is straight up right now," he says.

That learning curve will include managing a burgeoning workforce, as CBP continues to add 6,000 Border Patrol agents by the end of 2008 and the National Guard deploys as many as 6,000 members to the Mexican border in a move Basham says will free up Border Patrol officers to perform their core missions. It will include housing an expected surge in detainees as the agency ends its "catch-and-release" policy, under which CBP arrested suspected illegal immigrants and then told them to return for a court date for potential deportation. And it will include an acronym-happy collection of port and border programs, most prominently SBInet, the technology component of President Bush's Secure Border Initiative. The SBInet procurement, potentially worth up to $2 billion, is due in September.

Technology, Basham says, is not a silver bullet, and it's important to ensure the combination of staffing, intelligence, infrastructure and technology CBP ultimately employs actually is effective. "We've wasted a lot of time and dollars if it doesn't work," he says.

His involvement in SBInet will be closer to that of a cheerleader than a micromanager, Basham says. He will fight for what the bureau thinks it needs, but will defer to his staff on the details. "From the time I was a GS-14, I began developing my own personal management style," he says. "It's a style that's very inclusive of others. I recognize I don't have all the answers. I've known that for a long time."

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