The House Homeland Security Committee held a hearing last week on the persistent issue of a merger between Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). GovExec reported on the hearing in this article, and the prepared testimony from Stewart Baker, Julie Myers, Deborah Spero, Seth Stodder, T.J. Bonner, and Arthur Gordon is available by clicking on any of their names.
I’ve written about this issue previously, coming down in favor of the proposal to merge CBP and ICE, for many of the reasons outlined in the testimony by former CBP senior policy advisor Seth Stodder. But Seth admits what is undoubtably true: that this would be harder to do today than 1 or 2 years ago, because so much time has already passed:
Concluding that the original split of INS and Customs and their reconstitution into CBP and ICE was a mistake does not answer the question posed by this Committee, however. The reality is that the split has happened, and CBP and ICE currently exist. The question now becomes whether it is worth the effort to undo the organizational mistake made a few years ago.
The Department of Homeland Security has clearly concluded that it is not. Tellingly, DHS does not defend the original decision to split Customs and INS and re-combine them into CBP and ICE. Deputy Secretary Jacksonâ€™s letter responding to the Inspector Generalâ€™s report of last year does not defend the original decision. Nor did Assistant Secretary Bakerâ€™s testimony of last year. Rather, the apparent DHS rationale for not merging CBP and ICE appears to be that it is too late to unbreak the eggs and that the omelet has already been made. In Deputy Secretary Jacksonâ€™s words, a merger of CBP and ICE would â€œyield a protracted period of organizational churn, thus undermining operational effectiveness at CBP, ICE, and the Department at large.â€
I can certainly sympathize with Deputy Secretary Jacksonâ€™s comment. I lived through the first period of â€œorganizational churnâ€ when DHS made the decision to break up Customs and INS and re-combine them into CBP and ICE.
And it may indeed be true that the benefits associated with creating a single border, immigration, and enforcement agency might not be worth the â€œorganizational churnâ€ associated with combining two currently existing agencies, CBP and ICE. In some sense, DHS might simply have â€œbigger fish to fry,â€ as it works on strengthening FEMA, addresses port security issues, and endeavors to strengthen border and immigration enforcement through the Secure Border Initiative, among other things. It may be that the window for organizational tinkering has closed â€“ even to correct obvious mistakes, such as the CBP-ICE split â€“ and it is time to focus on the substance of homeland security and strengthening obvious organizational basket-cases like FEMA. In the meantime, DHS can muddle through with the dysfunctions of having CBP and ICE be separate agencies through coordination mechanisms and a stronger policy apparatus. And we must give significant credit to Secretary Chertoff, Deputy Secretary Jackson, and to the leaders of ICE and CBP for all the great strides they have made.
Maybe at this point it is better to leave well enough alone, and let DHS do its substantive work without the distractions involved with further organizational change.
But Seth comes to the conclusion that this attitude would ultimately be a mistake, and that if we wait any longer, we’ll create a 40-year organizational problem, similar to the problems that plagued DOD between its establishment in 1947 and the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols reforms. I agree. This is one case where the likely benefits of integration are so straight-forward that that I think it’s worth the short-term pain. However, the consensus seems to be shifting in favor of leaving well enough alone, and the current political climate on border security is likely to disfavor risky initiatives with no clear political constituency. I think that eventually this issue will get resolved – but maybe we’re looking now at a target date of 2042.