November 20, 2002
Customs, INS brace for major shake-up
Both will move into new agency
By TOBY ECKERT and JOE CANTLUPE
COPLEY NEWS SERVICE
WASHINGTON – Border and immigration agencies are headed
for a new home with new rules under landmark domestic
security legislation passed by the Senate last night.
But that home, the Department of Homeland Security, is just a
blueprint, and no one is certain how long the transition will take
or how smooth it will be.
That has sowed plenty of anxiety from the senior echelons down
to the rank-and-file employees of the Immigration and
Naturalization Service and U.S. Customs Service. INS and
Customs will become part of the department's border and
transportation security division. Even though they have worked
side by side for decades doing largely the same duties, the INS
has resided in the Justice Department, while Customs has been
part of the Treasury Department.
The change will have particularly far-reaching implications for
the INS, which will be split into two bureaus – one for
enforcement and the other for handling applications for green
cards, work permits, citizenship and ot her immigration benefits.
Although the Bush administration says it has been making
transition plans for months – which would affect nearly two
dozen federal agencies and 170,000 employees – it has kept
them largely under wraps.
"We're not aware of how it's going to be fleshed out at this point,"
said one midlevel government official who requested
"We figure things will shake out soon and there's some master
plan at Homeland Security, but we don't know it yet. But we do
know it's going to be a long-haul process," a Customs official said.
Despite the uncertainty, some at the border agencies welcomed
the impending changes, echoing concerns long voiced by critics
that the INS was failing at both of its tasks – enforcing borders
and handing out immigration benefits. Heightened concern
about terrorism since the Sept. 11 attacks has intensified calls for
splitting the agency into separate branches.
For many INS inspectors and Customs agents, who carry out
similar duties along the San Ysidro and Otay Mesa border
crossings, the merger was long sought "because they all felt it
was better to work together, under the same department," said
an INS official based in San Diego, who declined to be identified.
Nonetheless, the official said, the uncertainty of what's ahead is
very much affecting – in an adverse way – the attitudes of people
working at the border.
"You walk around the offices, and there's someone in Customs
squawking, 'Oh, we're going to be in charge.' There are a lot of
questions: Even though we'll be in the same department, will we
have the same say as Customs? Will people be wearing different
uniforms? What will happen to the jobs? Will they be
Joe Dassaro, president of the San Diego chapter of the union
representing Border Patrol agents, heard similar worries.
"Among the agents, the guys on the line, you'd be hard-pressed
to find anybody who knows what's going on," he said. "At the
ground level, no one has received any guidance at all, zero."
"Whether our job functions are going to change, whether our job
descriptions are going to change, what our pay structure is going
to be – no one has had any kind of communication. All we're
hearing is that we're going to be working longer hours for less
"That's a big morale buster," Dassaro said.
Such comments underline how tough it will be to change
mindsets when merging two agencies that have been locked for
decades in turf battles and bureaucratic rivalries.
While Customs is expected to maintain a separate commissioner,
INS Commissioner James Ziglar is expected to step down before
the end of the year and his post is expected to be eliminated.
Officially, once the bill is finally cleared by Congress and signed
by President Bush, the administration has 60 days to lay out a
plan for creating the Homeland Security Department and a year
to carry it out.
But one official acknowledged "it could take a whole generation
of employees" to get a comfortable fit between the border
"It's going to be a monumental process," said Dan Griswold, a
trade and immigration analyst at the Cato Institute, a
Washington think tank. "The INS is a huge bureaucracy with a lot
of slow-moving parts. So it's going to take quite a while to
T.J. Bonner, president of the National Border Patrol Council,
which represents Border Patrol employees, said: "Any time
there's a massive reorganization, it sets agencies back three to
five years. We don't have the luxury of time. It's not going to
solve our problems but make us less efficient."
Other experts have predicted the transfer won't be that
"None of these agencies is closely linked to its current
department's core functions; none received much attention from
its Cabinet-level boss before Sept. 11," the Brookings Institution,
another think tank, concluded in an exhaustive examination of
the homeland security proposal. "Thus while any reorganization
is by definition disruptive, the costs of severing the border
agencies' current departmental ties are modest and
Staff writer Gregory Alan Gross contributed to this report.