House eyes DHS shake-up

The House Homeland Security Committee plans to hold a hearing March 10 to review the possibility of merging the Border and Transportation Security Directorate's Customs and Border Protection agency with its Immigration and Customs Enforcement arm.

The House committee's apparent tilt toward merging CBP and ICE mirrors comments by senators and testimony offered in January at a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing [See GCN story]. The Senate committee's chairwoman, Republican Susan Collins of Maine, favorably received recommendations by several policy analysts that CBP and ICE should be merged.

Any such reorganization would realign the department's continuing efforts to consolidate its systems [See GCN story].

According to a notice House committee chairman Rep. Christopher Cox (R-Calif.) issued today, the hearing is to examine whether CBP and ICE should be merged 'and explore how the division of border security and interior enforcement has affected the overall homeland security mission.'

Scheduled witnesses will represent two unions, the American Federation of Government Employees and one for Border Patrol agents. Two former ICE officials also will testify, as will a former official of the Immigration and Naturalization Service. The Homeland Security Act of 2002 dismembered INS, dividing most of its responsibilities between CBP and ICE.

CBP and ICE now cooperate with another part of the former INS, Citizenship and Immigration Services, in matters relating to changes in foreigners' immigration status. They are also strongly influenced by the U.S. Visitor and Immigration Status Indicator Technology program, which is building new systems for processing travelers.

Since DHS came into operation in 2003, officials of the component agencies have worked to realign their systems to reflect the realities of operating new or reshaped organizations. The department's IT operations reflect in part the underlying organizational boundaries, and any change in those divisions likely would prompt a shake-up in the department's computer operations.

During earlier Senate hearing, Collins asked DHS inspector general Richard L. Skinner to prepare a report on the prospects for merging the two agencies and present it to the committee in about three months.

T. Jeff Vining, homeland security analyst for Gartner Consulting, said the agency merger could speed coordination of government biometric databases. 'You've already got issues between [the] departments of State and Homeland Security between the ten-fingerprint database [the FBI's Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System and the two-fingerprint database [DHS' IDENT system],' Vining noted.

He added that DHS faces the possibility of dealing with several biometric systems at the border, including the Transportation Worker Identification Credential, the U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator System, the Registered Traveler database and others.

"This is a move to consolidate make [ICE and CBP] one line item in the budget and also make them interoperate better. I think it is a good idea,' Vining said. 'The IT implication is that you are going to have more and more government agencies operating consolidated databases.'

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