I was hired by the late, great U.S. Customs Service [USCS] on July 15, 1979 here in Honolulu, Hawaii. On March 1, 2003, the agency I worked for ceased to exist and was folded into the new U.S. Customs and Border Protection [CBP].
George Washington used to pick up his presidential salary at the U.S. Customs House in Alexandria, Virginia. President George W. Bush ended that 214 years of service and tradition in the Treasury Department and combined Customs, Immigration and Agriculture inspections into one new heterogeneous agency under the new Department of Homeland Security which was created in the wake of 09/11/2001. CBP would have to find its own way and seek to accommodate each of these legacy agencies’ distinct missions.
I made that journey from USCS to CBP and will soon be retired for 5 years. It is my purpose here just to share some lessons learned and to make some recommendations going forward.
U.S. Customs was founded in the same year that the U.S. Constitution was ratified.
It was nearly a century later that America began to take immigration matters seriously with the Immigration Act.
U.S. Border Patrol was established in the Immigration Bureau of U.S. Department of Labor.
The U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service [INS] was a part of the Labor Department from 1933 to 1940 and then under the Justice Department until 2003. Border Patrol fell under INS.
PARSING CBP’S NAME
The agency which so many in the media, the public and even incredibly some officials in the U.S. government get wrong is U.S. Customs and Border Protection. It is NOT U.S. Customs and Border Patrol. Border Patrol is a former INS element that is now part of CBP.
CBP Officers [CBPOs] work within official Ports of Entry [POE] including airports, seaports and landborder ports. Border Patrol agents cover all the terrain in between POEs.
There used to be a unit called Customs Patrol Officers in years prior to the merger in 2003 which also covered the area between ports for Customs purposes while Border Patrol handled Immigration issues.
AREN’T CUSTOMS AND IMMIGRATION ISSUES THE SAME?
No. They are not. They are altogether different in nature and scope.
Deals with admissibility, whether one is allowed to legally enter the United States from foreign territory. Once it is established that a person is a U.S Citizen, Immigration has no more reason to be concerned with them.
On the other hand, Customs was originally established to protect and collect the revenue for the U.S. Treasury long before the imposition of income taxes. American case law also has long held that warrantless border searches are authorized to prevent the introduction of contraband into the country.
From the time that I started with Customs in Hawaii in 1979, interdicting narcotics was a high priority. It is legal to bring any amount of cash across the U.S. border if properly reported, but Customs was tasked with preventing the movement of unreported or hidden currency to prevent money laundering. Preventing the smuggling of child pornography was also a Customs responsibility.
TOTALLY DIFFERENT MISSION AND MINDSET
Whereas Immigration Inspectors very narrowly looked at whether the person standing before them could or could not be allowed to proceed and enter the United States, Customs Inspectors were both a second line of defense in that same regard as well as having myriad other responsibilities regarding the movement of commodities and merchandise into, out of and through this country.
In Customs, we were basically the first, last and only defense against smugglers. While they were responsible for Immigration enforcement, Border Patrol did sometimes also stop drug shipments across the border just as Customs Patrol Officers sometimes also found illegal aliens.
The agency has changed and the uniforms have changed but Border Patrol is still essentially what it was under INS and now as part of CBP. They have the mission to interdict contraband, but the thrust of their activities relates to illegal aliens.
The big change and the essence of the problem we are now addressing is that the role of the armed federal officers within the Ports of Entry is no longer what it once was.
A NOTE ABOUT AG INSPECTORS
When CBP was created, it was envisioned that Inspectors of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s [USDA], Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service [APHIS] would become the same job series as their counterparts who came from legacy Customs and INS.
We would all wear the same uniform, all be armed, and all be equally competent to perform Immigration, Customs and Agriculture Inspection duties. That ran into an immediate roadblock with Agriculture inspectors who considered themselves, and were indeed, scientists with degrees in such fields as entomology or botany. They did not consider themselves law enforcement and almost none wanted to carry a gun. It wasn’t what they signed on for when they were hired.
At the same time, many excellent Customs and Immigration Inspectors didn’t know one bug from another and had no idea which plant species could be harmful to American crops.
So the powers-that-be quickly relented. Ag Inspectors became a separate job series who wear the same uniform but are unarmed.
Personally, to me this always seemed that they were being put at risk, for instance, when boarding a vessel in a uniform indistinguishable from a CBPO but without a weapon and without law enforcement training.
Hawaii is unique for the agriculture environment. Certain plants and animal products are not allowed to go from here to the U.S. mainland. When you come into Hawaii you are checked by the State of Hawaii Department of Agriculture, but going from here to the other states, USDA inspectors perform the exams.
So, when DHS/CBP was formed in 2003, these Hawaii USDA Inspectors had a choice either to come over to CBP or to remain with USDA. For those who came to CBP, they may not have known what they were getting themselves into and the overtime system may also have been an attraction at that time in their choice.
But those of us who came from Customs or INS had no such choice to make. Henceforth, we would be trained and expected to perform all duties both of combined Primary and of Secondary Inspections which amounted to Admissibility and Baggage respectively. I am referring to the Airport International Arrivals or Federal Inspection Service area environment.
Here in Hawaii, Customs historically also has always provided service at the seaport. INS kept their people stationed at the airport and just sent them out when they needed to process someone at the seaport.
I have been focusing on Hawaii, because that’s where I was when the merger occurred in 2003. But I have also worked in the much larger ports of LAX and Los Angeles / Long Beach Seaport when Customs was still separate. I have also gone TDY to the Southwest Border with Mexico at both San Ysidro and Calexico.
I am sure each POE went through its own growing pains when the white-shirted Immigration Inspectors and the dark-blue-uniformed Customs Inspectors were joined in the shotgun wedding as I will always refer to it. Neither agency wanted this and many in Customs definitely dreaded it.
SO WHY DID THE MERGER OCCUR?
I would love to ask Dubya, our 43rd president, that very question. What were you thinking, sir? Were you thinking, sir? Did you have even the foggiest notion what you were doing to United States border enforcement posture?
Let’s remember the timing of this event. The United States military invasion of Iraq to overthrow Saddam Hussein began less than three weeks after the creation of this new Department of Homeland Security. To say the Bush administration had too much on its plate and failed to multi-task adequately would be a gross understatement.
I’ve often thought of the characterization I once heard of Bush staffers meeting in the basement of the White House over take-out pizza to realign agencies whose very different missions they didn’t even begin to understand. All they knew or cared to know was that Customs, Immigration and Agriculture all defend our borders. So they lumped us all together in total disregard, or more likely total ignorance, of how different our missions truly are.
I do not attribute this to any malevolence by President George W. Bush. But his miscalculations in Iraq are no more severe than his miscalculations in realigning agencies into DHS.
CUSTOMS ANECDOTES TO SUPPORT A RECOMMENDATION
Before the Merger
When I started at Honolulu International Airport with Customs in 1979, Immigration was upstairs and we were downstairs in the baggage area. Seldom the twain did meet except when we found someone with a suspicious and possibly bogus U.S. passport whom we walked back upstairs.
At that time there was a U.S. citizen bypass of INS and we in U.S. Customs had an admission stamp for U.S. passports. Customs Inspectors were actually responsible for finding a fair number of fraudulent ones. As law enforcement officers, we always considered Immigration matters as a collateral duty from the outset. This was an attitude seldom if ever reciprocated by our INS counterparts who didn’t know and didn’t care about Customs processing.
I was in the second class to ever attend the Customs Academy at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center [FLETC] in Brunswick, Georgia, which we also referred to as Glynco. It is no coincidence that the former Naval Air Station was turned into FLETC while the peanut farmer from Plains, GA was in the Oval Office. It was there that I met new Customs Inspectors from all over the country and learned much about the diversity of our agency.
Just before I graduated, I was in the FLETC dormitory dayroom watching the movie Dog Day Afternoon with Al Pacino on the evening of November 4th, 1979, which was interrupted by a breaking news bulletin that American diplomats had been taken hostage at the U.S. embassy in Tehran. When I got back to Honolulu, we began seeing passports that had been issued by the Shah’s regime which now bore the imprint of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
We used to also see specimens of fraudulent passports and lookouts for suspected terrorists. My point here is that Customs Inspectors were always privy to such citizenship documentation issues and always took it very seriously. We always did our own Customs job and backed up INS at the same time.
So, what Bush 43 failed to take into account was that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it till it is. I never expected the merger to take place, but 09/11/2001 was such a shock to the American government, that decisions which were made in the aftermath were not always rational.
After the Merger
I had long worked in joint staffing as a uniformed Customs Inspector and Senior Inspector and Supervisory Customs Inspector with our counterparts in the U.S. Customs Office of Enforcement, who were the plain clothes investigators of our agency back then. The initial occasion was during the 1st Persian Gulf War when I was assigned as a Desk Officer doing Outbound Enforcement at the Operation EXODUS Command Center at USCS HQ in Washington DC. I helped to implement the embargo against Saddam when his hordes invaded Kuwait in 1990.
I was back in Honolulu and physically working each day in the office of the Customs Agents in a joint staffing for the Customs Asia Pacific Enforcement Reporting System [CAPERS] in 2003. On February 28, I was an employee of the U.S. Customs Service Office of Field Operations working with the U.S. Customs Service Office of Enforcement. When I reported for work on March 1, I was an employee of a separate agency, U.S. Customs and Border Protection working with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Former U.S. Customs Commissioner Robert Bonner became Commissioner of CBP which remained in the Ronald Reagan Building at HQ while the agents relocated to Immigration facilities.
I recall that we were directed not to refer to our agency as the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection but rather as U.S. Customs and Border Protection. It is probable that the word Customs was intended to remain prominent to ensure continuity with the legacy of the U.S. Customs Service, including warrantless border searches long held legal in case law.
Many of the agents of the new U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement wanted to use the acronym BICE which reminded folks perhaps of Miami Vice, the popular TV crime show, rather than just ICE ~ especially here in Hawaii where “ice” is synonymous with crystal methamphetamine.
Here in Honolulu, CBP remained in the former Customs office in the PJKK Federal Bldg while ICE inhabited the old, historic but moldy/musty Immigration Bldg nearby on Ala Moana Blvd.
Many of the Customs computer systems were also kept in place both for enforcement and such other vital matters as time and attendance and payroll. Which was good because the DoJ systems which INS used were totally antiquated at that time. They were running on a very out of date version of Windows.
This disparity goes back a long time. Over the years, Immigration Inspectors were using a hard copy Subject Look Out Book [S.L.O.B.] which often missed lookouts on suspects and we had to walk them back upstairs after we got a hit on our Customs Treasury Enforcement Communications System [TECS].
But it was more than technology that distinguished DoJ from Treasury, which was so different between INS and Customs. I was amazed after the merger to find out that INS had required officers, even first line supervisors, to obtain permission of a GS-13 Chief Inspector just to send an official fax.
There were other things built in to protect the domain, and particularly the overtime, of Immigration Chiefs.
As a Supervisory Customs Inspector, I became a Supervisory CBP Officer. Back in 1986 at LAX, I had been cross-trained and cross-designated to do immigration primary duties. So I understood the visa categories and basic admissibility criteria.
But, unlike most of my Customs Supervisory colleagues here in Honolulu after the merger, though we were not thrown into the joint primary booths, I actually volunteered to work as Secondary Supervisor for Admissibility Control which was just a euphemism for Immigration.
Customs Secondary was called Baggage and was downstairs after arriving airline passengers retrieved their luggage from the carousels. It was a time in which Customs and Immigration personnel were learning each other’s mission. Not so much with a sense of enthusiasm as with a sense of resignation that this was the future and therefore was totally immutable.
But, I decided to take the bull by the horns. One other Customs Supervisor and I went through many weeks of formal training on the “Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952, also known as the McCarran–Walter Act, codified under Title 8 of the United States Code, [which] governs immigration to and citizenship in the United States. It has been in effect since June 27, 1952.” U.S. Customs Statutes fall under Title 19 of the United States Code.
It was the authority and prerogative of GS-13 Chief Inspectors to make final decisions on whether a person of concern would be admitted or sent back home. The first line supervisor would provide guidance and if it was at night, a Chief would be called at home and earn a lucrative overtime for making the final decision.
I personally found the Immigration processing distasteful. I still recall one specific incident about 15 years ago when a young lady from Australia was denied admission and sent back just because she had overstayed on a previous 90-day Visa Waiver by a day or two. 90 days does not mean 91.
Her elderly parents were with her and they would have been admitted, but when she was rejected, they voluntarily went back with her, totally destroying what the Hawaii Visitors Bureau had hoped they would come here for.
There are provisions to parole such a person under these circumstances and let them have their vacation as they are not a threat to American society in any way. They would enjoy their trip in Hawaii, spend their Aussie dollars and go home with a favorable impression of our country.
I also witnessed that some Immigration inspectors spent far too much of their valuable time looking for little old Filipina ladies who had taken a bit of welfare while living here on a green card, so they took away the alien residence status. All the while, I recall one so-called expert Inspector who was on the Counter-Terrorism team who was questioning a suspect from South America. When I asked him whether his interrogation had included any potential nexus with the Tri-Border Region of Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay, he was totally unfamiliar with that situation.
This is not to say that Customs Inspectors did not historically come in all degrees from top notch to lackadaisical. But, all things considered, Customs Officers have done a lot more for the Immigration mission than Immigration Officers have done for the Customs mission since the merger.
One more anecdote: Customs Passenger Analysis Units [PAUs] were highly skilled at identifying potential narcotic smugglers. Since the merger, the PAU mission has gone nearly 100% toward looking for Immigration violators at the expense of contraband interdiction.
KEEPING THIS ALL IN PERSPECTIVE
Most of my career with USCS & CBP was here in Hawaii, totaling about 30 years. My experience in Los Angeles and Washington DC was all prior to the merger under Customs for about 5 1/2 years over all. Including my active duty military time in the U.S. Air Force during the Vietnam Era, I retired with 42 years total federal service on January 3, 2015.
Therefore, I use Honolulu as an example to demonstrate my contentions about how the merger has altered America’s border enforcement posture. Honolulu has always had an outstanding well deserved positive reputation as the Mouth of the Dragon for making the most of resources and enforcing the law at the international border.
My last time in uniform was at the end of 2006 when I did a lateral transfer here in Hawaii to become a Field Analysis Specialist, focusing on intelligence and targeting matters in the Pacific Basin. For the last 8 years of my career, I supported the uniformed officers with information to help proactively identify and target potential smugglers and border violators. Much of this involved coordination with foreign Customs, Immigration and other law enforcement colleagues.
I have gone into this extensive background to offset challenges of: “Who cares what you think about United States border enforcement posture?” You still may not care, but I do know whereof I speak.
Been there, done that!
Congress needs to get off the dime. We didn’t send you to Washington DC to engage in partisan politics. There are ways to get beyond this impeachment distraction by focusing on matters on which you can make a significant impact. The realignment of border enforcement resources to enhance our national security posture is most definitely one area where you can redirect your energies.
I want to specifically address this to Ed Case, Representative from Congressional District 1 in Hawaii in which I reside. You have done a yeoman’s job thus far of avoiding hyperpartisan Democrat rhetoric and subversion. Let’s keep it that way.
Engage your colleagues on both sides of the aisle to hold hearings and scrutinize the structure of both CBP and ICE. I will add to that U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services [USCIS], which inherited the mission of the Naturalization component of the now defunct INS.
After 16+ years since the merger of 2003, there will be many CBP Officers and ICE Agents who have spent their careers in the combined agency and have no recollections or experience in the missions of the former separate and distinct agencies which existed prior to the shotgun wedding. Many who have the insights you need will now be retired but could still come to your aid.
Whether you would want to return Customs and Immigration to their respective Departments of Treasury and Justice is not a big concern. Frankly, DHS has never lived up to the high expectations which led to its formation in the wake of 09/11/2001.
We went from our first DHS secretary Tom Ridge being ridiculed over terror alert levels and suggested use of duct tape to the present day in which DHS is still struggling to be relevant.
Let the Ag Inspectors go back to USDA from whence they came. But you can recreate Customs and Immigration as separate agencies with their own unique and indispensable missions. The key is that you will then have highly trained, extremely motivated and competent officers focusing on their own aspect of border security.
This would involve also putting uniformed inspectors and plain clothes agents back into the same agency as they work cooperatively on the same mission. USCIS could remain as it is.
Customs would once again be Customs and keep our borders safe from the penetration of all types of illegal elements and activities. Immigration would once again ensure that only those who should be in this country are actually in this country.
An agency with too broad and nebulous a mission, by trying to accomplish too much will succeed at nothing. The border has fallen off the headlines and front pages at the moment due to the impeachment process, but the pendulum will swing back again any day now. Let’s be ahead of the game and undo the damage done by the ill-planned merger of border agencies.
Many of my Customs colleagues in retirement may not agree fully with my proposals, but they all have insights to offer of which Congress must avail yourselves. This is the perfect bipartisan project to restore respect in our elected legislators. You come up with the best possible bill to realign the DHS agencies, and President Trump will inevitably see it in his own interests and the interests of the country to sign it into law.
The fact that you’re still with me at this point proves that you truly care about the future of our nation. Our national sovereignty depends upon securing our borders.
I start with Rep. Ed Case, but I also put this out to every other member of Congress, both House of Representatives and Senate. If you want a bill with your name on it that will affect America for generations to come, this is your golden opportunity.
Expect those career civil servants still working in CBP and ICE to look out for their own vested interests and advocate for maintaining the status quo. You’ve been around the block a few times, so that will not surprise you at all.
At this point, I will be happy to take any questions from Capitol Hill or 1600 Penn Ave.
We are currently forming the American Conservative Movement. If you are interested in learning more, we will be sending out information in a few weeks.
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