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One Face at the Border: Behind the Slogan

Press Release
Thursday, June 23, 2005

One Face at the Border: Behind the Slogan

In less than two years, the Department of Homeland Security’s ambitious One Face at the Border initiative has made strides toward creating a unified agency to inspect people and goods at U.S. air, land and sea ports, according to a new report from the Migration Policy Institute.  However, author Deborah Meyers finds that the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection (CBP) still has significant weaknesses that could undermine border security if they are not confronted squarely and soon.

Meyers identifies the three most pressing priorities for making U.S. ports-of-entry both secure and efficient:

  • bring consistency and transparency to policymaking and implementation;
  • head off deficiencies in expertise and infrastructure through planning and partnerships; and
  • increase information-sharing and stress evaluation, both inside the agency and with outside partners.

The report, available June 23 here, finds that the integration of border inspectors from three legacy agencies at U.S. ports-of-entry –  the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the U.S. Customs Service, and the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service – has had both positive and negative impacts. In other cases, little has changed since the September 2003 announcement.

On the plus side is better management, particularly the creation of a single chain of command with directors at ports-of-entry who can set policies and allocate resources throughout the port.  Other improvements are port staffs that are more unified around the agency’s anti-terrorism mission and new security-oriented technology.

However, Meyers found critical weaknesses to be addressed. One of the most important is a lack of immigration expertise within CBP.  Only four of 21 Field Operations Offices are headed by former INS employees, and some former long-serving and knowledgeable INS employees retired or ended up in DHS agencies or programs other than CBP after the merger.  Inadequate expertise means that asylum seekers are treated inconsistently and inspectors are uncertain about some visa categories and the conditions associated with them, such as duration of stay.  Meyers found that this is troubling to inspectors themselves.  “As dedicated professionals who take pride in their work, they expressed discomfort with being asked to do their jobs without full training, particularly after having been told there is zero tolerance for errors.”

Practices such as periodic “traffic flushing” (waving cars through with little or no inspection to clear backlogs) at ports-of-entry are inconsistent with CBP’s most basic functions.  Meyers asserts these problems present “challenges to the integrity of the immigration system, for US security, and for travelers who must deal with the consequences.” 

Information, including feedback from the field, is poorly shared.  Attempts to exert top-down message control compound this problem and contribute to a lack of transparency,  unrealistic expectations about what the agency can accomplish, and unsubstantiated assertions regarding the program’s role in the war on terrorism.  Assessing the program, including its contributions to security, has become more difficult because formal public outreach efforts such as meetings between the government and community-based groups or stakeholders have been eliminated or greatly reduced.

As the report says, “Without internal metrics, it is difficult to evaluate program effectiveness in terms of meeting stated goals or finding unintended impacts. It also is difficult to ensure that resources are being well spent or to develop necessary policy adjustments.”

These weaknesses in internal feedback and expertise have served the agency poorly both in terms of policy decisions and employee morale. Meyers found a great deal of fear and uncertainty among agency employees.  Some of their major concerns were based on new standards of conduct including broad language regarding unauthorized disclosure of sensitive or classified information; continued representation by three different unions (and no representation for new CBP officers); a since-rescinded requirement that all DHS employees sign a secrecy pledge; and the revamping of the DHS human resource system to include a pay-for-performance system.

Many border users and agency employees noted the lack of visible change resulting from the One Face at the Border initiative.  For example, physical infrastructure at and approaching ports-of-entry remains limited (e.g., a 75-year-old bridge and tunnel connect Detroit and Windsor), and inspection areas are outdated because they were built according to the specifications of the predecessor agencies.

Meyers writes, “When inspection lanes in the United States can be accessed only from a two-lane rural highway in British Columbia or from local roads that go right through congested downtown areas such as Tijuana, policy changes themselves are unlikely to have a significant impact on operations.”

Meyers concludes that for CBP to capitalize on gains made through One Face at the Border and to maximize efficiency and security at ports-of-entry, sufficient knowledge and expertise, clear policies and consistent implementation, partnership with employees and with outside stakeholders, a long-term vision, and a willingness to make necessary adjustments will be necessary.  One Face at the Border has been primarily an organizational and management change.  This alone cannot enhance security or facilitate legitimate traffic.  Nevertheless, with realistic expectations it can contribute to achieving these goals as one component of a much broader effort.  

Key Recommendations

Retaining and Developing Specialization and Expertise
To counter insufficient expertise and assist inspectors in navigating the complex laws, CBP should:

  • Create additional areas of specialization for CBP officers in passenger and cargo processing.
  • Continue to develop in-house expertise on fraudulent documents and on terrorist travel indicators and to enhance counterterrorism training for all of its inspectors.
  • Build additional training time into its personnel system, incorporate additional subject matter expertise into the training for new officers, and accelerate delivery of cross-training.
  • Reconsider the minimum requirements for the CBP officer positions, particularly compared to consular officers who screen visa applicants. 
  • Ensure sufficient immigration expertise within CBP headquarters and promotion opportunities for former immigration employees in the field. This includes appointing a permanent head of the Immigration Policy Office in the Office of Field Operations.

Building a New Institutional Culture
In order to develop a new agency culture that values its employees and transparency, CBP should:

  • Keep its employees better informed and enhance mechanisms for employee feedback. 
  • Resolve the outstanding personnel-related issues relating to the merger, including union representation. Fair and consistent pay, work, training and promotion opportunities under one set of rules should ameliorate concerns about job security and facilitate an integrated workforce.
  • Proactively address the climate of fear among employees, ensuring that those who speak out appropriately in the name of security are supported rather than suppressed.
  • Build a culture of transparency, including evaluations that are publicly accessible for input and review.  This should include a reinstatement of the Data Management Improvement Act Task Force and reconnection with border agencies in other countries, including those in Canada and Mexico.
  • Exercise greater caution about public statements regarding the benefits of the program so as not to create unrealistic expectations.

Increasing Public Outreach

  • CBP should increase outreach efforts and actively seek input from and partnership with a broad range of actors and stakeholders at the local and national levels.
  • CBP also should develop a formal liaison mechanism, similar to that of the business-oriented Office of Trade Relations, for the community that deals with the movement of people.

Addressing Systemic Obstacles and Thinking Long Term
In order to streamline inspections both logistically and technologically, CBP should:

  • Review statutory requirements and mandates governing inspections to determine whether they could be simplified to reflect the new agency structure and security priorities.
  • Advocate within the government for database integration and access to that information.
  • Create a long-term plan for infrastructure expansion based on needs and capabilities at and approaching ports. This should be done in conjunction with facility operators, relevant transportation departments and Mexican and Canadian officials.
  • Actively expand and promote preclearance programs for frequent border crossers.
  • Explore and address systemic weaknesses that have led to traffic flushing – waving cars through with little or no inspection at ports-of-entry – a practice that undermines the agency’s mission.
  • Designate one individual in each region responsible for pulling together all the relevant public and private sector actors, possibly through reinstating border coordinators or through the creation of a broader regional authority.

The full text of One Face at the Border: Behind the Slogan
is available on the MPI website athttp://www.migrationpolicy.org/pubs/Meyers_Report.pdf

This is the second in a series of three reports that will be released this summer as part of MPI’s project Assessing Selected Border Control Measures After September 11.  The first report addressed the US-VISIT entry-exit system, and the final report will address changes in visa procedures and requirements.