Merger of immigration, customs agents causes friction

In early May, when the new Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement began to take shape in Washington, John Chakwin hit the road in his 1991 Oldsmobile to bring the bureau to life in Atlanta. ICE, as the Homeland Security Department agency is known, is an amalgam of federal law enforcement personnel from four different agencies. To bring them together in Atlanta, Chakwin, ICE's interim special agent in charge for the region, needed new office space in a secure location. So for two months this spring, Chakwin spent his weekends driving around the Atlanta metropolitan area, searching for an acceptable building. "I drove all over this city trying to find a good space for my guys, and I think we finally got one," he says.

Cloning determined managers such as Chakwin might be one way to tackle the ICE reorganization, which many Homeland Security officials regard as the most complicated merger inside the department. It is a true merger-jobs and missions are changing-that could resolve decades-old weaknesses in the U.S. immigration system and prevent terrorists from exploiting American financial systems. But if ICE has potential, it also faces mammoth challenges. Eight months after it was established, ICE is hobbled by angry agents, an unclear mission and endless administrative woes.

The challenges start with personnel. "They've got at least four separate cultures to unite," says Asa Hutchinson, who oversees ICE as undersecretary for border and transportation security. In investigations alone, ICE inherited 3,500 agents from the old Customs Service, 2,050 agents from the now defunct Immigration and Naturalization Service, and 900 officers from the Federal Protective Service, which shifted from the General Services Administration. The agency has its own fleet of fixed-wing aircraft, a corps of intelligence analysts, and almost 3,000 detention and removal personnel to hold and deport illegal immigrants. In October, ICE snared another police unit, absorbing the Federal Air Marshals program from the Transportation Security Administration.

With so many parts, ICE has struggled to define its mission and find a niche in the war on terrorism. ICE may be the law enforcement arm of Homeland Security, but the FBI is the lead agency for investigations of terrorism. One of the first programs launched by Michael Garcia, a former acting INS commissioner who is now ICE's top cop, was Operation Predator, an effort to round up pedophiles and child pornographers. "It's important stuff, but it's not catching terrorists," says a veteran Customs agent who is now at ICE. While ICE agents have a variety of law enforcement powers-they can pursue a variety of criminals, including money launderers, alien smugglers and illegal weapons traders-other agencies, including the FBI, already have tried to grab their turf. Many ICE agents aren't sure what their mission is. "ICE seems like a revamped INS with a sex crimes unit," says another veteran Customs agent.

Inside the agency, ICE officials have been slow to make decisions on issues ranging from which firearm agents will carry to the criteria for promotions. Garcia lost many senior managers when the INS was split three ways in March, leaving a thin management staff at ICE. "INS lost or divided up its support structure, so Garcia doesn't have the management machine that [the Bureau of] Customs and Border Protection does," says a senior Homeland Security official.

In the final days of September, ICE agents still were waiting to hear how they would pay outside translators and be reimbursed for travel in the new fiscal year. With no clear guidance from Washington, rumors ran wild. One had veteran Customs agents going several weeks without pay. Even top officials seemed perplexed. "Some of you may realize that there remains a degree of confusion relative to end-of-year administrative procedures and guidance for fiscal year 2004," wrote John Clark, ICE's interim director for investigations, in a Sept. 27 e-mail to senior ICE officials. "You are not alone."

Part of the challenge is that ICE agents came from vastly different agencies, each with their own systems and mission priorities. In the old INS, investigations often took a back seat to immigration services. Michael Higgins, a veteran INS agent who is now Chakwin's deputy in Atlanta, remembers agents being pulled off cases to help process citizenship applications. "That's just wrong," he says. Law enforcement also came second at GSA, where building managers sometimes had Federal Protective Service officers shovel snow.

Customs, by contrast, made investigations a priority, and its agents long have been known for their skill working drug smuggling and money laundering cases. Customs also had technologically advanced administrative systems; veteran agents remember using a paperless travel system as long ago as the late 1980s. Former INS agents roll their eyes when discussing their paper travel voucher system, which requires each receipt to be stapled to a separate piece of paper. "We were the haves, and they were the have-nots," says a veteran Customs agent. The haves aren't happy in their new home.

Angry Agents

People who know Customs agents say they're a finicky bunch that wasn't content before the Homeland Security reorganization. As one Customs veteran puts it, "agents are bitchers and complainers." But Customs agents below the management level talk about the ICE reorganization with an almost visceral sense of loss. They don't understand why Bush officials split up Customs-they note the legislation creating the Homeland Security Department abolished the INS, not Customs-or why ICE didn't immediately adopt Customs policies and systems, which they see as superior. Matthew Issman, legislative vice president of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association, has surveyed several hundred Customs agents in the field, and his findings suggest that ICE has a serious morale problem. "Legacy Customs agents who have contacted me are deeply troubled by this transition," he says. "A reliance on the failed systems and structure of the INS only hinders the move." At Garcia's initial town hall meetings with field personnel, he was met by a deafening silence from Customs agents, according to a former Homeland Security official familiar with the sessions. "The only questions came from INS and FPS people, who saw opportunities to get training and a new career ladder. Customs people never asked questions, because they didn't see one benefit from this merger."

Customs was organized like a police department. Its port inspectors served as street cops, who discovered violations and then handed them off to agents. The agents were the equivalent of detectives and developed larger cases from inspectors' leads. The Homeland Security reorganization separated the agents from inspectors, who went to Customs and Border Protection. Veteran Customs agents fear they've lost the sources of their leads. Many cling to rumors that Robert Bonner, the admired former Customs commissioner who now runs CBP, is trying to hire his own agents. "If Bonner gets agents, I'm gone," says one veteran Customs agent. "The only fix is to recombine CBP with ICE under Commissioner Bonner," says another.

Agents point to two high-level policy agreements as signs that Customs traditions are not priorities at ICE. In March, Border and Transportation Security chief Hutchinson gave Acting Inspector General for Homeland Security Clark Kent Ervin first dibs on all probes of Customs employees suspected of criminal misconduct. Traditionally, these cases went to Customs' Internal Affairs unit, a group of seasoned Customs agents. Since Ervin received power over the investigations, the IG's office has kept most cases for itself, eroding the mission of Internal Affairs. Then, in May, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge signed an agreement with Attorney General John Ashcroft that established the FBI as the lead agency investigating the financing of terrorism. Customs' initiative to track terrorist finances, Operation Green Quest, had been the agency's crown jewel in the war on terrorism, but the agreement with the Justice Department prohibits ICE from even using the Green Quest name. Some veteran Customs agents think ICE got rolled.

Garcia says this view is based on "misinformation," and stresses that ICE still is working all the financial cases it had before the Justice deal-the only difference he sees is improved coordination with the FBI. "I haven't heard an example of how because of the [agreement] we're not able to do the work we did in Green Quest. I haven't heard that at all," he says. Shortly after the agreement took effect, Garcia unveiled a new initiative, Operation Cornerstone, designed to root out foreign corruption and help private companies protect themselves against money laundering.

Garcia encourages veteran Customs agents to let him know if their traditional cases are suffering at ICE. "A legitimate concern to me as a Customs agent would be, we developed this expertise on these kind of cases, and we want to continue to be able to do that," he says. "My message is, 'Tell me if that's not happening.' " Still, Homeland Security officials acknowledge that all is not well among their investigators. "There is an issue there. I think Garcia has some management challenges to make sure morale goes in the right direction," says the senior Homeland Security official. But they don't entertain the idea of re-combining ICE with CBP. "Trust me, that ain't happening," says the official.

Chakwin admits he still bleeds Customs blue. He always has. He grew up hearing glowing stories about Customs agents from his father, a New York police officer, who thought Customs was the premier law enforcement agency in the United States. But Chakwin now believes that Customs agents need to let go of Customs and adjust to ICE. "Look, there are certain things in life you have to give up," he says. "We're going to end up stronger here in ICE."

Multiple Missions

In Atlanta, Chakwin and his deputy, former INS Agent Higgins, moved quickly to merge agents into one staff. In March, they decided to run all enforcement actions together, from wiretaps to drug smuggling stings. Chakwin sent six computer forensics agents to INS to work Operation Predator cases, while Higgins transferred an immigrant smuggling unit to Customs. Officials believe Customs' expertise in financial crimes and asset seizures will help shut down alien smuggling rings. "[INS] never went after the money. Now we're going to go after it," says Peter Del Sandro, a veteran Customs agent who is an ICE assistant special agent in charge in Atlanta.

This is music to Garcia's ears. When he talks about ICE's mission, he is most enthusiastic about the range of ICE's enforcement authorities, which he believes will lead to breakthrough investigations when used together. ICE inherited authority to work immigration cases from the INS, along with Customs' authority to pursue smuggling, money laundering and export violation cases. "If you're doing an alien smuggling organization, now you can look at the people, you can look at the organization, you can look at where the money goes-how it's being sent out of the country, how it relates to exports, and you can do it all within one agency," says Garcia. "That's a tremendous step forward."

But eight months after ICE's creation, it's still unclear which investigations the agency will most actively pursue. Garcia wants more probes of illegal exports, which can be linked to terrorism, and he stresses that money laundering also is a priority. But since ICE's authority overlaps with that of other federal law enforcement agencies, some of its missions will be set through negotiations.

Consider drug cases, which absorbed from 50 percent to 70 percent of Customs' investigative resources before Sept. 11. For more than a year, first Customs, and now ICE, has been discussing its drug mission with the Drug Enforcement Agency, which has parallel enforcement authorities. "I think that today there's no question that the leadership of ICE is trying to focus their efforts and resources on higher echelon drug organizations, dismantling them at a higher level in the chain," says a Homeland Security official familiar with the talks. "A year ago there was more of a tendency [in Customs] to focus on street crimes." But other sources say the division of work between DEA and ICE is less clear, noting that Customs thwarted a DEA attempt to grab hundreds of Customs agents who worked drug cases before the merger.

Tracking foreign students and visitors who violate the terms of their visas also will be part of ICE's mission. In the months before the merger, INS agents in Atlanta spent almost all of their time tracking leads generated by the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System, which captures information on certain nonimmigrant visitors. Analysts in Washington already crank out dozens of leads a week from data in the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS), and ICE agents are following up on them. ICE will hire 51 new agents to focus on people who overstay their visas in fiscal 2004.

ICE also has rolled out initiatives to apprehend criminal foreigners and overhaul the detention process for illegal immigrants, part of what officials describe as a larger plan to restore integrity to the immigration system. Garcia made detention and removal a separate division in ICE's six-part management structure. In May, ICE rolled out a Top 10 list of wanted criminal aliens, nine of whom quickly were captured. The agency is staffing 20 six-person fugitive operation teams to go after illegal immigrants who flee after receiving deportation orders. The teams face a daunting workload; 400,000 cases are pending. But detention officials say the teams mark a sea change in mind-set from the old INS, where deportation enforcement was rarely a priority. "You would be pulled from your job to assist in a naturalization ceremony, or be shuffled to the airport to do inspections," says Michael Rozos, ICE's interim field office director for detention and removal in Atlanta. "Now, deportation officers come to work and they can do their jobs. The program is very well received."

As ICE works to get organized, Rozos actually has two jobs-he's also ICE's deputy assistant director for removals and case management, a headquarters position with authority over ICE pilot projects to beef up detention. Under one project in Hartford, Conn., illegal immigrants who get deportation orders from a judge are immediately arrested, preventing them from absconding while they appeal to the Board of Immigration Appeals. Critics say the practice will encourage immigrants to skip court hearings, but Rozos says there is no evidence that the project is having that effect. Rozos says senior Homeland Security and Justice Department officials are exploring other ways to reduce the fugitive alien population, including rule changes that would deny appeal rights to immigrants who flee after receiving deportation orders. Immigrants would be barred from appealing deportation orders until they surrendered to ICE. "This would put a lot more clout behind a judge's final order," Rozos says.

In some parts of the country, ICE's focus on detention has swept up its criminal investigators. Former INS agents at ICE are accustomed to helping out on detention work-which often involves transporting prisoners, not developing criminal cases-but Customs agents never did such work before they arrived at ICE. A veteran Customs agent in the Midwest describes being pulled off a complex cybercrime case to help transport illegal immigrants. "So now I'm a GS-13 jailer," he says. Garcia says ICE will ask for resources to beef up its detention staff, but he also defends the importance of detention and removal. "It's incredibly important work," he says. "There are still special agents who do institutional removal work because it needs to be done. Our plan is to get those resources into detention and removal so they can do that work."

Full Integration

From Garcia on down, ICE managers sound the theme of sharing resources and pursuing joint operations. Edward DeCoste, ICE's regional director for the Federal Protective Service in Atlanta, says he will put two veteran FPS agents on ICE's fugitive operations team for the city. Rozos, in turn, pledges to send detention and removal personnel to DeCoste if a demonstration takes place near a federal building.

Veteran Customs and INS agents are even sharing cash. On the last Thursday in September, Higgins and Del Sandro huddled around a table at the old INS office in downtown Atlanta, trying to divvy up $64,000 in unspent funds before the end of the fiscal year. But even as agents collaborate in Atlanta, they face practical challenges to complete integration. One is space. While veteran INS agents work out of the old INS building, a hulking structure where immigrants line up every morning to visit the local branch of Homeland Security's Citizenship and Immigration Services bureau, most veteran Customs agents are housed 12 miles away, in an office park just outside the city. Space there is so tight that veteran Customs agents can barely fit computers into their cramped cubicles.

So Chakwin took to the road this spring, looking for a new building that could house both investigative corps. He finally found one in Peachtree City, a suburb south of Atlanta. If funding pans out, ICE agents might be able to move in sometime next year. ICE sources say offices in other cities, including Chicago, are struggling to find space so former Customs and INS agents can move in together. Michael Dougherty, ICE's director of operations, declines to say how many of ICE's 25 field offices have been able to collocate, but says ICE is looking to fully merge all 25 within the next 18 months.

Beyond common office space, veteran Customs and INS agents need a shared base of legal knowledge. Customs agents need training in immigration law before they can make immigration-related arrests, and veteran INS agents need training in customs law. Garcia is leaning toward training agents in the field, instead of rotating all 5,500 ICE agents through the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Glynco, Ga. His first priority is to train agents to work on FBI-led joint terrorism task forces, and he wants all veteran agents cross-trained by the end of fiscal 2004. "We strongly believe we'll accomplish that in the next fiscal year," says Garcia.

A certain number-Garcia says a couple hundred-of veteran INS agents also will be sent to Glynco for additional criminal investigator training. Some ex-INS agents, particularly those who began their careers in the Border Patrol, didn't go through the training center's standard criminal investigator program, a course offered to agents in Customs and dozens of other federal agencies. Higgins spent nine years in the Border Patrol and never went through the program at Glynco. He says about half of the veteran INS agents in Atlanta also started on the border, and he staunchly defends their abilities as agents. "I would put the guys in this office up against any criminal investigators in government," he says.

Training is a touchy subject at ICE because most veteran INS agents transferred to ICE as GS-12s, a grade lower than their counterparts at Customs, who came in as GS-13s. Sources expect veteran INS agents to be promoted to GS-13s, but training could play a role in pay increases. "Obviously, everybody in DHS believes you've got to have the same pay scale for agents working side by side on the same cases," says Garcia. "We're trying to get that done for everyone who is qualified."

Another hurdle to complete integration is administrative services, particularly the travel, budget and case-tracking systems that agents depend on during complex investigations. After the merger, agents continued to rely on their old agencies for administrative support, an approach that was supposed to end on Oct. 1. But in an interview on Sept. 17, Garcia could not say which travel system ICE would use in fiscal 2004; no decision had been made. The uncertainty hit a feverish pitch in the last days of September, as agents pestered supervisors over how they should pay for travel, Spanish translators-even gas for their work cars-in the new fiscal year. Clark, ICE's director for investigations, captured the feelings of many rank and file agents in his Sept. 27 e-mail when he warned that the uncertainty could hurt investigations. "I am very concerned about the continuing lack of information on fiscal year 2004 procedures and its impact upon our ongoing operations," he wrote.

ICE avoided a meltdown on Oct. 1 by extending its reliance on the administrative systems of the agencies that sent it personnel. Veteran Customs agents still will be paid through the old Customs payroll system, now used by Customs and Border Protection, until their personnel information is entered into the old INS payroll system, which ICE will use.

Garcia says administrative issues are "tremendously complex," because ICE personnel brought different infrastructure to the agency. The Federal Protective Service, for instance, has many offices in remote locations. Many issues require negotiation with other agencies, particularly Customs and Border Protection, which has clashed with ICE on some reorganization decisions. In mid-July, ICE tried to transfer Customs' Office of Security, an Internal Affairs unit that handles background checks on new personnel, to the Federal Protective Service. According to multiple sources, the move was reversed after pressure from CBP Commissioner Robert Bonner, who claimed that the security office belonged to CBP, not ICE.

Defenders of ICE say any large-scale reorganization will produce turmoil, and they note that investigations have not let up. In late September, as part of an investigation that began under Green Quest, ICE agents arrested Abdurahman Alamoudi, a Virginia businessman suspected of financing the militant group Hamas.

Garcia believes that ICE has made clear progress since March. In June, the agency started training new ICE agents, who take an 11-week course in Glynco on Customs and INS procedures. More than 100 new agents already have graduated. ICE will continue to develop new operations that will integrate diverse personnel in the field. "People will see those programs develop and become comfortable with them," he says. "Everyone will be ICE agents. No more Customs, no more INS, just ICE."

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