U.S. to Let Immigration Agents Make Drug Arrests

By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 17, 2009; 6:21 PM

The Obama administration is preparing to give more U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents authority to make drug arrests to assist Mexico's bloody battle with drug cartels, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. told senators today.

The decision would end a years-long dispute between the Justice and Homeland Security departments, significantly increasing the number of federal drug agents, particularly in border areas.

Holder said that he discussed the question with Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano last night and that they were ready to announce an agreement.

"I don't want to steal anybody's thunder here, but we have reached, I think, essentially an agreement," Holder said in response to a question from Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.). "I think it's going to be announced within days," he said.

Schumer, chairman of the panel's immigration subcommittee, praised what he called the administration's decision to end a bureaucratic turf war.

"I think you've just announced it," Schumer said. In a statement, he added, "This is welcome news because it doesn't make sense for the top agency stationed along the border to lack the power to arrest criminals there."

Separately, Napolitano added that interagency cooperation was a priority of hers and that any agreement "will increase our ability to secure the border, curtail drug trafficking and make our country safer."

By law, the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Federal Bureau of Investigation have authority to investigate federal drug crimes, with the FBI concentrating on organized crime. Under an agreement that has not been updated since 1994, DEA also gave arrest authority to U.S. customs agents who make seizures at border crossings.

However, since ICE took over customs investigations with the creation of the Homeland Security Department in 2003, it has pushed for expanded authority to match its bigger presence at the U.S.-Mexico border and throughout the country.

ICE has about as many agents as DEA -- about 5,000 compared with 4,800 agents. As of March, DEA had delegated about 1,300 ICE agents with drug arrest authority, ICE officials said, with a cap set at 1,475 agents.

"Right now, we have at least three separate agencies, all with different missions, trying to handle border enforcement," Schumer said. "The cartels that smuggle drugs and illegal immigrants have integrated their activities, and now the federal agencies will have a better integrated response."

Competition among the agencies stymied a 2004 effort under then-President George W. Bush to update the 15-year-old "memorandum of understanding," which addressed investigations under Title 21 of the federal criminal code, the section that lays out drug crimes.

After Holder's testimony, DHS Assistant Secretary for ICE John Morton and Michelle Leonhart, acting administrator for DEA, released a statement saying, "Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Drug Enforcement Agency continue to work towards a Title 21 agreement and we hope to make an announcement soon."


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