The OIG Has a 'Eureka!' Moment about DHS's Stove-Piped Immigration Mission

Would the Joint Chiefs of Staff model help in coordinating immigration?

By Dan Cadman on November 14, 2017

The Department of Homeland Security Office of Inspector General (DHS OIG) issued a report last month entitled "DHS Needs a More Unified Approach to Immigration Enforcement and Administration".

Despite the title, it's clear from the contents of the report that the OIG has included not just enforcement, but also immigration benefits-granting functions in its review. This is important because these days many people don't consider such functions as an integral part of the immigration control regimen, although they are — or at least should be. They were never intended to be a gigantic giveaway program separated philosophically or operationally from other important aspects of this nation's system of immigration laws.

Right at the outset, in typically understated prose, the report says:

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, continue to face challenges with emerging immigration enforcement and administration activities. Although DHS has established unity of effort initiatives to break silos and centralize decision making related to immigration, problems remain.

Nobody should be surprised by this. It was in some ways an inevitable outcome of breaking up what was formerly a single agency (the now-defunct Immigration and Naturalization Service, or INS) into three distinct, stove-piped organizations within DHS, as the result of passage of the 2002 Homeland Security Act.

Each of the major operational components, freed from the engine governor that the former INS Commissioner's Office constituted, has benefited in significant ways. There are no longer any divisional "stepchildren" as a result of the likes or dislikes of any particular commissioner. On the other hand, without strategic and tactical oversight and coordination, a bureaucracy is an un-tuned engine without oil, and will ultimately choke or seize up.

Many other countries have also dealt with their immigration responsibilities through reorganizations, just as the United States did as a result of the 9/11 attacks, however that reorganization often wasn't achieved via dismemberment of the immigration components, but rather through elevation of them, intact, into a single cabinet-level department. There is something to be said for that approach since it avoids the problems that arise from stove-piped functions and a larger department with multiple (and sometimes conflicting or competing) missions, but a drastic legislative reconsideration of the Homeland Security Act is extremely unlikely. We're stuck with what we've got.

DHS has been in existence now for nearly 15 years. While it is a huge bureaucracy with multiple missions, one of the most critical is, and has always been, reflected in its immigration enforcement and control responsibility. It is dismaying that the department's leaders have left this mission in coordinative drift for so long; it doesn't speak well for their own strategic comprehension of the risks inherent in such neglect.

I'm pleased to see that the OIG has had its "eureka!" moment and taken the subject on, although one might have wished that it wasn't done in quite such a sotto voce manner. Still, the report ends with the recommendation that "DHS should establish a formal department-level group to facilitate long-term solutions for overarching component immigration enforcement and administration challenges, and improve efficiencies."

An assistant secretary, speaking on behalf of DHS, has concurred, stating that "The Office of Strategy, Policy and Plans (PLCY) will seek to charter a senior level cross-component Immigration Policy Council. This Council will provide an institutionalized structure for Department-wide strategic planning related to immigration policy and operations."

If the Department of Defense provides a basis of comparison, and I think it does, then it is likely that the council being proposed is already doomed to ineffectiveness.

I think this because the Office of Strategy, Policy, and Plans is too low in the organizational chain to pull the weight needed to ensure high level participation — participation of the kind needed to guarantee that when the members of this council meet, they speak with the absolute authority of their respective agencies. Failing this, the council will devolve into an exercise in futility — people will meet, minutes will be taken, everyone will take their notes back to their bosses, and their bosses' bosses, etc., and the "get-backs" will somehow never quite gel into action. This is the kind of organizational structure that grows to justify its existence while doing little that contributes anything of concrete value. I have seen such exercises often enough in my many years as a part of the federal bureaucracy.

Instead, I would suggest that DHS do something more radical: Adopt a coordinative and leadership structure more along the lines of the Joint Chiefs of Staff model that has proven so useful for the Pentagon, and which provides a real basis for cross-component operations and coordinated missions to ensure that strategic goals can be achieved in the immigration arena. Anything less will lack the imprimatur of the DHS secretary, and result in the kind of rote game-playing at which most bureaucracies excel when their feet aren't held to the fire.

Time will tell.