An Agency in Turmoil

It’s the second-largest law-enforcement agency in the U.S. government, a mammoth operation that bills itself as a vital bulwark against terrorists and illegal immigrants.

But since the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement bureau was carved out of the former Immigration and Naturalization Service and Customs Service after the 2001 terror attacks, internal turmoil, budget flubs and other bureaucratic dysfunction have left it in a sorry state.

For a time, financial woes meant its agents were unable to gas up their cars or use cell phones. Money, personnel and bed-space shortages continue to mean that many of those caught in America illegally _ including potential terrorists _ may be let free with only a promise to appear at a future court hearing. Internal audits have branded the agency a financial and organizational basket case.

Now, ICE _ a division of the sprawling Department of Homeland Security _ stands at the center of a continuing controversy on Capitol Hill. It is the second Homeland Security agency _ the hurricane-embarrassed Federal Emergency Management Agency was the first _ to face flaying for mismanagement recently.

“It’s just a disaster waiting to happen,” said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies.

At ICE, the current criticism focuses on lawyer Julie Myers, the White House choice to head the agency. She is facing opposition because of her relative youth, paucity of management experience, lack of expertise in the complex field of immigration law and what some call a political crony-connection to her boss.

Myers received a party-line vote of confidence last week when the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee endorsed her appointment. But her nomination goes now to the Senate Judiciary Committee, where it is likely to run into more flak.

In June, Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff picked Myers, 36, for the post of ICE commissioner, which oversees a $4 billion budget and more than 15,000 personnel. Its duties include tracking down and expelling illegal aliens, busting firms that hire employees without “green cards,” chasing foreign students and tourists who overstay their visas and combating child pornography, money laundering and weapons and drug trafficking.

If confirmed by the Senate, this would be the second time Myers has served at a top level under Chertoff. The first came when Chertoff was head of the Justice Department’s criminal division and Myers was his chief of staff. Last month, Myers married Chertoff’s current chief of staff at Homeland Security, John Wood.

That connection, along with the fact that she is the niece of newly retired Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Richard Myers, has spawned a flurry of accusations that she is another Michael Brown in the making.

Brown is the former head of FEMA who had few credentials for running that Homeland Security agency beyond his GOP connections, and resigned under a hail of criticism after FEMA fumbled its Hurricane Katrina response.

The White House maintains that Myers is well-suited and prepared for the job. Aside from her time at the Justice Department, she also served a stint as a federal prosecutor and as an associate counsel on former Clinton-era independent counsel Kenneth Starr’s team.

At the Treasury and Commerce departments, Myers oversaw efforts to combat money laundering, financial crimes and export-control law violations. Most recently, she worked in the White House personnel office.

Her biggest supervisory responsibility came at Commerce, where she ran a staff of about 200 and a budget of $25 million. In all, she barely meets the five years of management experience required for the ICE job.

That troubled Ohio GOP Sen. George Voinovich, who told Myers at a confirmation hearing that her resume lacked the requisite executive heft for tackling the administrative morass that ICE has become. But after meeting with her and Chertoff, he changed his tune.

“The senator believes that she has the potential to be an effective leader,” Voinovich spokesman Garrette Silverman said.

That is not the assessment of several Democratic senators who have promised to fight her nomination in the Judiciary committee and, if it makes it, on the Senate floor. “Faced with these daunting challenges, ICE clearly needs a proven leader,” Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., said.

On one thing, all sides _ including ICE’s inspectors general and many current and former employees _ agree: the bureau is in need of intensive care.

Fierce turf combat has raged since Customs and Immigration personnel were lumped into the same bureaucracy, causing severe financial, communications and morale woes. Accounting screw-ups have resulted in hiring and spending freezes that compromised agency personnel’s efforts to find, confine and expel illegal immigrants. A parade of experienced personnel has left the bureau.

Homeland Security officials say ICE is in the process of being fixed and that Myers will bring tenacity and skill to the task if confirmed. But a leader of the American Federation of Government Employees, a public-sector union, disagrees.

“Millions of illegal aliens penetrate our borders each year and ICE is the only agency (in Homeland Security) responsible for identifying and detaining them once they are inside the country,” AFGE official Charles Stowalter said last week. “I, for one, would want the most qualified person leading that charge _ not just a person who knows the right people.”

(Contact Lisa Hoffman at HoffmanL(at)