Why an Immigration Czar?

Until a cabinet-level Department of Immigration is created, it might help.

By Dan Cadman on April 19, 2019

Many observers, including some of us at the Center, commented on the president's loss of confidence in swaths of his Department of Homeland Security (DHS) leadership, leading in short order to the resignations of the DHS secretary and deputy secretary and the acting director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

This raft of resignations will presumably, although not as a certainty, lead President Trump to nominate new individuals to serve in those jobs. I say "not as a certainty" because he is apparently comfortable with the notion of appointing individuals to act in such capacities; they are scattered throughout the executive branch at present. To be fair, this is at least in part because of the tremendous difficulty that this president — in marked contrast to his predecessors — has had in getting his nominees through the Senate's advice-and-consent process, thanks to the Democratic "resistance" and the Senate's antiquated rules for doing business.

One might think that the president will have his hands full trying to find good, qualified nominees for the vacant positions, which are of outsized importance given the crisis of border and immigration security our nation faces presently. Why, then, is he thinking about appointing an immigration czar, a position that exists nowhere on the organizational charts of either DHS or the executive branch as a whole?

I am, generally speaking, no fan of government "czars". They can be pretentious; take up all the air in the room; exist in rarified atmospheres completely separated from the reality of the day-to-day operations of government, including those for which the czar was ostensibly created; and uselessly gobble up huge amounts of time, money, and staff while producing nothing worthwhile. But I find myself thinking much more carefully about this proposal. So why an immigration czar, other than as an expression of the president's palpable frustration with how things are going on his signature issue?

One answer is precisely because it isn't on the org charts. The president would be in the position of appointing someone he wants, and for whom there is no advice-and-consent process to go through, because that person would be a part of his personal White House staff. He might, for example, select someone such as Kris Kobach, whom he knows to be an advocate for tough immigration enforcement, but who also would have a tough time getting confirmed because centrist Republicans would object along with their Democratic brethren.

Despite the lack of a place in the organizational chart, if Trump were to create such a position and vest it in someone who is known to speak with the president's voice, can there be any doubt that he or she would be closely attended by whoever is either permanently or acting in the positions of DHS secretary, or deputy secretary, or head of the three agencies within DHS that exist to administer and control immigration? Only the foolhardy would not listen to such a voice, especially given the president's propensity to wipe inconvenient chess pieces off the board.

But there is another, more serious, reason we should consider. It is essentially this: The DHS structure created by the Homeland Security Act was a fundamentally bad idea. DHS has become a sprawling bureaucracy of many different moving parts and components, some of which have little or no relation to one another. It is a near impossibility for either the DHS secretary or deputy secretary to attend as carefully as possible to any one of the juggled knives moving through the air without losing sight of the others and risk being pierced.

All of the DHS secretaries since the behemoth department was created have tried in one form or another to instill throughout its cogs a sense of cohesiveness ("One Organization, One Team"), or to cobble together standing committees whose purpose is to look strategically at the whole, but of course such committees always bring to mind the inestimable Sir Barnett Cocks' quip, "A committee is a cul-de-sac down which ideas are lured and then quietly strangled."

Where immigration is concerned, the impact of pulling apart the now-defunct Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) in favor of three, completely distinct organizations — ICE, Customs and Border Protection (CBP), and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) — has been particularly disastrous. Two of them, ICE and CBP, being the plainclothes and uniformed enforcement organizations, respectively, were formed by the shotgun marriage of INS and U.S. Customs agents, and it has been an unhappy, lopsided marriage in each case. It was a fallacy to simply assume that because they functioned in similar environments, like belonged with like.

Worse, USCIS examiners no longer have any connection at all with the enforcement organizations, resulting in a leftward philosophical drift in which they no longer see themselves as responsible for assuring compliance with the law, but rather more in the vein of people whose job it is to give-give-give benefits away.

There has been an incredible stove-piping of the work of the three agencies. And in two of them (ICE and CBP), a secondary stove-piping exists because legacy immigration and customs agents still struggle within each for supremacy over workload, positions, and mission. Given this chaos, who's minding the store? Who ensures that the continuum of operations and policies and standard procedures make sense in the government's overall struggle to get a grip on immigration to the United States? No one.

I won't say that the INS was perfect; far from it. One of its failures was that at the field office level, a district director was expected to rule over a fiefdom that ran the gamut from inspections to benefits adjudications and naturalization; from investigations to detention and removal. It was too broad, and the background pedigree of each director sometimes resulted in one of those arenas being ignored, or deliberately suppressed, at the expense of others.

Yet it is clear that what came out of the Homeland Security Act isn't working either. It seems to me that what our nation needs is a cabinet-level Department of Immigration whose secretary handles nothing but all of the issues in that incredibly broad spectrum, does so on a daily basis, and creates the kind of infrastructure (and institutional knowledge) that can reweave together the various threads of that ever-so-important fabric. Within this kind of structure, there could still be divisions for border patrol, inspections, investigations, detention and removals, adjudications, and naturalization, each with sufficient field autonomy, but all of which dovetail so that none operate in ignorance of, or more importantly, at the expense of, any other.

Until such a department comes to pass, perhaps an immigration czar isn't a bad idea at all.