Bush plans super-agency to improve US-border control

Merging INS and Customs is on par with Kennedy's creation of NASA – it isn't easy.

Keep America safe by keeping terrorists out.

That's the simple driving vision behind a Bush administration plan to merge the nation's major border-guarding forces into a single super-agency.

Yet the new plan faces a complicated and tough reality. America's borders are notoriously hard to control – and some see the new proposal as a useless bureaucratic reshuffle, while others, including members of Congress, say it's not dramatic enough.

The plan, to be finalized soon, reportedly combines the 20,000-member Customs Service with the 35,000-member Immigration and Naturalization Service, (including the Border Patrol).

History shows such mergers can work spectacularly well or go bust. In the 1960s, NASA's new workers – pulled from many agencies – coalesced quickly to put a man on the moon. But today's 25-year-old Energy Department is still seen as a messy amalgam of conflicting fiefdoms.

For a new border agency even to get off the ground, observers say, several initial things are key:

• It has to have sustained presidential and congressional support – including funding.

• The merging agencies must bridge big culture gaps – in missions and pay scales – and unify around the antiterror mission.

• The merger has to be just one step in larger reform.

Overall, the basic trouble with the plan is that it merges agencies that "aren't very good at playing with others," says Brookings Institution scholar Paul Light. However, he says, "You're bringing them together around a mission that makes a lot of sense."

He notes similar urgency behind NASA's early mission of meeting President Kennedy's 1961 challenge to put a man on the moon. The agency had strong public and congressional support – and plenty of funding.

Another success, says Mr. Light, is the Environmental Protection Agency – "although it took about 10 years to really gel." It succeeded because of growing public environmentalism.

Since Sept. 11, there's certainly strong appeal in keeping terrorists out. Yet the new agency faces opposition, such as trade and tourism interests in maintaining an open border.President Bush highlighted this tension Saturday in signing a new accord with Mexico that, he said, aims to keep the border "more open" yet "more secure." It would attempt to do so by using things like high-tech ID cards that speed frequent crossers through checkpoints – allowing authorities to focus on more-suspicious travelers.

And there's the basic trouble with the INS. It has a history of ineptitude and is reeling from the recent embarrassment of sending visa-approvals to a Florida aviation school for two hijackers who died in the Sept. 11 attacks.

"You're starting with a broken core that really needs to be fixed," says Light.

To that core, the plan adds an agency dramatically different from INS – the Customs Service. It's a mostly revenue-generating agency focused on goods and trade. Last year it brought in $23.5 billion in taxes, fees, and penalties, second only to the Internal Revenue Service in generating government income.

Also, Customs agents are trained in complex tariff and trade laws, while INS agents are steeped in the minutiae of immigration law.

Former Border Patrol agent Jim Dorcy says having to learn and enforce both laws would "overwhelm most people they're asking to do these jobs." The government might as well extend the jack-of-all-trades approach to all federal workers "and have everyone do a little FBI work, a little DEA work, a little IRS work...." he says.

Former INS Commissioner Doris Meissner says that rather than expending effort on merging, the administration should force agencies to cooperate more. "These kinds of massive rearrangements are very distracting, and tend not to result in the promised improvements."

She says time and energy will be spent on such things as harmonizing salary and benefits, rather than border protection.

BUT ultimately a merger could help tame the border bureaucracy, says former INS district director Tom Fischer. At airports, he says, five agencies screen arriving people and goods – INS, Customs, the Agriculture Department, the Fish & Wildlife Service, and the Centers for Disease Control. "This could be a really good time to consolidate the overlaps," he says.

Indeed, many hope the merger is just a start. "It's a good idea," says Rep. Lamar Smith (R) of Texas, "but it needs to be separate from – or in addition to – the reorganization effort we're going to make." He and others are pushing for big changes at INS, including splitting it in half, which could complicate the merger.

Some worry that Bush's plan isn't sweeping enough. It is actually a scaled-down version of Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge's original proposal that also included the Coast Guard and border-related parts of the Agriculture Department.

Congress ultimately has to approve any plan – and may expand on Bush's ideas. Some Democrats, including Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, want to create a homeland-security agency with border authority.

Whatever the method, given the hugely complicated task, "The goal is to continue to make incremental improvements," Mr. Smith says, "and fewer mistakes."

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