New U.S. Agency Gets Cool Reception

Times Staff Writer

ICE. The name sounds like a moniker for a rapper or an exotic party drug. But Immigration and Customs Enforcement is the newest federal investigative agency, an arm of the Department of Homeland Security that is global in reach and second only to the FBI in number of agents.

ICE is also an organization with an identity crisis. Uncertain if it will even keep its name, ICE is grappling with tensions that arose from its rapid creation out of parts of agencies with very different missions and cultures.

Meshing more than 15,000 ICE employees is proving to be the toughest test of whether the Department of Homeland Security can be forged into a unified force against terrorism. Among the elite of ICE criminal investigators -- about 3,500 agents who came from the former U.S. Customs Service -- disillusionment is festering.

"Morale in the field is at an all-time low," ICE agent Allen Martin wrote the Senate Judiciary Committee on Nov. 10, in his role as president of the customs investigators' association. "There is a real lack of identity, mission focus, and direction."

Created on March 1, ICE brought together criminal investigators from customs and the former Immigration and Naturalization Service, as well as uniformed police who guard federal buildings, federal air marshals, the INS deportation program, the air and marine operation from customs, and an intelligence unit.

ICE investigators pursue arms merchants in Baghdad and illegal immigrant janitors at Wal-Mart. Financial crimes experts from ICE lend their skills to FBI probes of terrorism financing. ICE is responsible for protecting passenger jets at 35,000 feet, as well as Social Security offices around the country.

In his letter, Martin warned that the customs agents' expertise in money-laundering investigations -- an asset for disrupting terrorism financing -- is being squandered on tracking down illegal immigrants.

"Critical and traditional Customs investigative priorities have been placed on the back burner to fit the agenda of the new [agency], which is focused primarily on illegal aliens, not necessarily on terrorists," wrote Martin, whose complaint was echoed by several former senior customs officials, as well as current agents who requested anonymity.

The head of ICE strongly disputed that allegation.

"I fully support those traditional missions, and they are more important now in terms of the vulnerabilities and security of the country," said Michael J. Garcia, the assistant secretary of Homeland Security who heads the agency. "My vision ... is that those tools and skills are actually enhanced and used more effectively now that we have this type of umbrella agency."

Although Garcia said he is proud of the agency's sharpened focus on immigration-related crime, it doesn't mean ICE will downplay money laundering, export fraud or other customs priorities. "We have a statutory mandate not to fall back from any of the work we were doing," he said.

He envisions ICE as a nimble organization whose investigators are cross-trained in each other's disciplines. Immigration agents could work as air marshals in an emergency. Customs financial investigators could probe illegal immigrant smuggling rings.

At 42, Garcia is a rising star in federal law enforcement. An assistant U.S. attorney in New York in the 1990s, he helped convict the bombers who carried out the first World Trade Center attack. He also took part in the prosecution of Ramzi Ahmed Yousef, who plotted to blow up U.S. airliners in Asia.

But developing a team spirit at ICE is a different challenge. "It's like an arranged marriage," said Paul Light, a scholar at the Brookings Institution who specializes in federal bureaucracy.

At ICE, there are even misgivings about the organization's name.

The original name, Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, resulted in an ungainly acronym: BICE.

"BICE sounds bad -- it sounds like vice, and lice," said Charles Stallworth II, a Stockton native and former Air Force fighter pilot who runs the agency's air and marine operations. "But ICE ... ice is cool, ice is refreshing."

Officials dropped the B, but that didn't end the debate.

"It sounds like a rap group," said an ICE supervisor in Southern California who, like other agents, asked not to be named because he would risk disciplinary action for talking to a reporter.

"The name is a joke," said a New York agent. "Do you know ICE is also a code name for drugs?"

For some, the move to the new agency has been welcome.

"We always felt under INS that we were the stepchildren," said David Venturella, assistant director of the unit that handles deportations. ICE has become more efficient at deporting illegal immigrants, including those with criminal convictions, Venturella said. "Now people are starting to pay attention."

But opposition from former customs agents is growing louder and more public. Some are writing Congress and posting their opinions on the Internet.

"This is not a food fight. It's not a trivial little spat," said Bonni Tischler, a former assistant customs commissioner for investigations and field operations. Tischler retired last year and works in private industry.

"There is a deep, atavistic feeling that the mission is being diluted," she said. "They took a real functional, high-profile discipline and put it someplace where it is having trouble. I don't think it's good for taxpayers, and I don't think it's good for government."

Adding personal aggravation to professional angst, customs agents who had relied on computer processing of travel expenses and work hours say they are now saddled with the paper-based system that INS had employed, which is late with reimbursements and often wrong on pay.

When President Bush announced the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, customs -- unlike INS -- was considered a well-run agency. "It had a B, B-plus grade," said Light of the Brookings Institution.

One of the oldest law enforcement agencies in the federal government, customs had evolved into one of the most eclectic: tackling money laundering, drug interdiction, technology theft and illegal arms exports, and dismantling child pornography rings. Investigators assumed their agency would go into the new department intact, as did the Coast Guard and the Secret Service.

Instead, investigators were separated from the front-line customs inspectors -- officials who quiz returning overseas travelers and inspect cargo at U.S. ports and often provide investigative leads.

The inspectors went into another Homeland Security division: U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Criminal investigators went to ICE as part of a plan to put all the Homeland Security special agents in one organization.

Separating the customs investigators from the inspectors was a mistake, said Robert Van Etten, a former customs special agent in charge in New York and New Jersey.

"Once you are not part of something, you start to drift," said Van Etten, who retired from customs in 1996 and works for a New York-area law enforcement agency. "This was an agency that had been in existence since 1789, and all of a sudden it gets split apart."

The fate of a customs-led task force on terrorism financing also added to concerns.

Before the March 1 merger, customs had spearheaded Operation Green Quest, which aimed to disrupt cash flow to groups that supported terrorism. Three months before the merger, customs announced it was doubling the size of Green Quest, which had resulted in $33 million in seizures, 79 arrests, 70 indictments and 600 open investigations.

But in May, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge signed an agreement with Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft that gave the FBI the lead in terrorism financing investigations, with ICE in a supporting role. Green Quest was closed down.

To replace Green Quest, ICE launched Operation Cornerstone, a program to identify vulnerabilities in the financial system that could be exploited by terrorists and organized crime. Some customs agents said that is work they do routinely.

"We are kind of pushed into the corner or working mom-and-pop operations," said the Southern California ICE supervisor.

While accepting a supporting role in terrorism inquiries, ICE has launched high-visibility initiatives on immigration crime. The latest, Operation Ice Storm, aims to dismantle the finances of violent smuggling rings that transport illegal immigrants.

Garcia and other top ICE managers say the concerns of the customs agents reflect misunderstandings in a climate of rapid institutional change.

"Much of the anxiety is just anxiety about the unknown," said John Clark, a customs veteran who is head of investigations. He points out that 23 of 25 special agents in charge of ICE offices around the country were formerly with customs.

Garcia said the agreement giving the FBI the lead in terrorism financing cases merely formalized what was already taking place in the field. And he was unapologetic about leading ICE into more aggressive immigration enforcement.

"We have human cargo being exploited, people being murdered; what better work in terms of border security, in terms of international security ... can you get than that?" he asked.

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