ICE Long Beach shootout: As immigration cauldron boils, ICE agents buckle

The Long Beach, Calif., shooting that left one Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent dead and another wounded comes as the Obama administration has moved to improve morale among embattled ICE agents.

Nick Ut/AP
A Homeland Security police car parked outside the Federal Courthouse in Long Beach, Calif. Friday. On Thursday a gunman shot another agent who was then shot and killed by a third agent. The shooting was over an unspecified disciplinary matter.

The internecine shootout that ended with one Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent dead and another critically wounded in Long Beach, Calif., on Thursday comes on the heels of an Obama administration effort to relieve dysfunction and morale problems within a frontline agency tasked with enforcing the nation's border laws.

The shootings came during an apparent counseling session between ICE supervisor Kevin Kozak and a lower-ranking supervisor, Agent Esequiel “Zeke” Garcia, where a third agent was in the room as a witness. During the hearing, Mr. Garcia allegedly drew his service weapon and shot Mr. Kozak six times. The third agent drew his weapon and killed Garcia.

ICE Director John Morton flew to Long Beach Friday to meet with the wounded ICE supervisor and the agent who killed Garcia.

"Both of these men came to work yesterday never imagining if they would literally be fighting for their lives, but that is exactly what in fact happened, and they were tested in a very dangerous way and showed incredible fortitude," Mr. Morton said.

Morton's response to the deadly, puzzling drama is the latest attempt to confront problems rooted in the agency's creation in 2003, when it was formed as a merger between U.S. Customs and Border Enforcement and the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

As early as 2005, the Office of the Inspector General began noting troubling operational dysfunction within the nation's immigration enforcement ranks.

“Where collegial interactions should characterize relations between employees of the two organizations, we have been told of competition and, sometimes, interference. These organizational conditions have led to the articulation of mismatched priorities, competition and, at times, operational inflexibility," the OIG wrote.

More troubling, the OIG found at the time that agents reported seeing little action from the top to deal with the problems. “We encountered concerns that institutional rivalries, duplication of functions and insularity of view were tending in a negative direction," according to the report.

Experts say that tensions within ICE remain high on a number of fronts. According to published reports, the Long Beach office, under Mr. Kozak, had become a hotbed of discontent, some of it linked to the INS-Customs rivalry. Kozak came from the Customs bureaucracy while Garcia began his career under the INS.

“While you might believe the mainstream media narrative that this was just a workplace rage incident, it’s actually far deeper than that,” conservative talk show host and workplace attorney Debbie Schlussel writes on her blog. “It’s a direct result of how bad things have gotten under the Obama administration and John Morton.”

The shootings came after a year when the agency scored some of its biggest immigration busts on record, with over 2,000 immigration scofflaws, including some violent ex-convicts, rounded up in a series of national sweeps last summer.

The agency has also been at the forefront of a White House administration effort to force ICE employees to use prosecutorial discretion to stop prosecution of undocumented immigrants who have deep ties to the US, an effort that has been widely criticized, even vilified, by agents in the field.

Meanwhile, there are other signs of an agency in turmoil. Aside from Thursday's shooting, there were three other incidents in 2011 where ICE agents were caught up in illicit activities.

Last fall, a supervisor in the agency's South Florida office was arrested on child pornography charges. Also last fall, an ICE agent was arrested for drug smuggling following a car chase. In May, an ICE agent in New York was arrested and charged with stealing government property and selling it on eBay.

Last month, Morton addressed a Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey where ICE was ranked 222nd  on a list of 240 federal agencies, proposing a new initiative to tackle “morale” problems.

“Although ICE, as a relatively young agency, has faced challenges that other more mature, long-established agencies have not faced, these challenges do not diminish our concern about the rankings,” Morton wrote. “We want to improve the satisfaction of our employees who work every day to carry out our critical mission.”

Morton promised a series of “town halls” to gauge the situation and propose initiatives to improve morale.

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