WASHINGTON — The White House is nearing a decision on merging the Immigration and Naturalization Service and the Customs Service in a bid to better protect the nation's borders and enhance homeland security.
President Bush was reviewing the plan, which has been endorsed by his top advisors. Aides said Tuesday that he is expected to accept the recommendation, possibly within the next few days. The plan, which requires congressional approval, would be a significant move to reshape the government's border security functions after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Under the plan, the Justice Department would probably oversee the new border security agency. The Customs Service is part of the Treasury Department, and Treasury Secretary Paul H. O'Neill reportedly has endorsed the idea.
The Justice Department already oversees the INS, which the administration is overhauling after years of gaffes and charges of incompetence. The immigration service most recently came under fire when it notified a Florida flight school that two of the terrorist hijackers had been granted legal status to study in the United States--six months after their suicide attacks on the World Trade Center. The Border Patrol is the law enforcement arm of the INS.
Advocates of the merger contend that it would reduce red tape, save money and enhance the government's ability to regulate border crossings at a time of heightened concern about terrorism. Recommendations to combine the agencies have been offered--and have languished--for years but found a new champion in Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge, along with others in the administration.
"A recommendation has been received by the president that would merge some agencies in a way that would help enforce the borders more tightly," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer told reporters Tuesday. "The president is always looking at ways to strengthen the border. . . . It's a very important priority."
INS Commissioner James W. Ziglar declined to comment Tuesday on the proposal, saying only that he fully supports the president.
The INS is responsible for regulating the entry of foreigners into the United States, and the Customs Service officials monitor the flow of goods into this country. Officials of both agencies typically staff posts along the borders with Mexico and Canada, as well as U.S. entry points inside airports and seaports.
Reaction on Capitol Hill to the latest merger plan was wary, as lawmakers awaited further details. But Democratic leaders suggested Tuesday that such a proposal would face tough scrutiny.
"I think it's important for us to be very deliberate," said Sen. Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.). "I want to make sure that we have the best possible enforcement mechanism and the best agency to deal with all of the complexities that we're facing with regard to border security. And I'm not sure this is the answer."
Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, sounded even more wary.
"If moving these boxes around on a flow chart amounts to change for the sake of change, then we will not come close to solving the real problems," he said.
"It is especially important to take a good hard look when something springs from an impulse to just do something--anything--to solve a problem. Congress and our committee will ask the tough questions to see if this is the right answer," Leahy said.
A spokesman for House Judiciary Committee Chairman James F. Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.) said the chairman was waiting for further details before commenting. "It's certainly something that we'd be very much interested in," the aide said.
U.S. and Canadian officials reached agreement in December to more closely coordinate their regulation of America's northern border, including plans for greater sharing of intelligence and information about travelers.
The Bush administration hopes to reach a similar border accord with Mexico later this week when Bush travels to a U.N. conference in Monterrey, Mexico.
The recommendation comes as Bush prepares for a four-day trip to Latin America, including Mexico. The trip begins Thursday with a stop in El Paso, where Bush is expected to discuss border issues.
"Jurisdictions are divided over many agencies for how to enforce our borders," Fleischer said. "And there's a school of thought that you can have better controls and more effective ways of welcoming people to this country, welcoming trade to this country, while keeping people out who would do us harm, as a result of consolidation."
Times staff writer Nick Anderson contributed to this report.