The Bush administration is seeking to appoint a lawyer with little immigration or customs experience to head the troubled law enforcement agency that handles those issues, prompting sharp criticism from some employee groups, immigration advocates and homeland security experts.
The push to appoint Julie Myers to head the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, part of the Department of Homeland Security, comes in the midst of intense debate over the qualifications of department political appointees involved in the sluggish response to Hurricane Katrina.
Concerns over Myers, 36, were acute enough at a Senate hearing last week that lawmakers asked the nominee to detail during her testimony her postings and to account for her management experience. Sen. George V. Voinovich (R-Ohio) went so far as to tell Myers that her resume indicates she is not qualified for the job.
But Voinovich has since met with Myers and is now likely to support her, his spokeswoman said yesterday. Myers, who has attracted strong support from many former colleagues, told senators that she would draw upon the experiences of ICE veterans in running the agency.
"I realize that I'm not 80 years old," Myers testified. "I have a few gray hairs, more coming, but I will seek to work with those who are knowledgeable in this area, who know more than I do."
After working as a federal prosecutor in Brooklyn, N.Y., for two years, Myers held a variety of jobs over the past four years at the White House and at the departments of Commerce, Justice and Treasury, though none involved managing a large bureaucracy. Myers worked briefly as chief of staff to Michael Chertoff when he led the Justice Department's criminal division before he became Homeland Security secretary.
Myers also was an associate under independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr for about 16 months and has most recently served as a special assistant to President Bush handling personnel issues.
Her uncle is Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers, the departing chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. She married Chertoff's current chief of staff, John F. Wood, on Saturday.
In written answers to questions from Congress, Myers highlighted her year-long job as assistant secretary for export enforcement at Commerce, where she said she supervised 170 employees and a $25 million budget. ICE has more than 20,000 employees and a budget of approximately $4 billion. Its personnel investigate immigrant, drug and weapon smuggling, and illegal exports, among other responsibilities.
Myers was on her honeymoon and was not available to comment yesterday. Erin Healy, a White House spokeswoman, cited Myers's work with customs agents on money-laundering and drug-smuggling cases. "She's well-known and respected throughout the law enforcement community," Healy said. "She has a proven track record as an effective manager."
ICE was created from remnants of the former immigration and customs services. It is widely viewed as one of the most troubled parts of the sprawling Department of Homeland Security.
Homeland Security political appointees have come under scrutiny since Michael D. Brown resigned under fire this month as head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which he joined with no experience in disaster preparedness. Several other senior FEMA officials were Bush supporters who did not have crisis-management credentials.
Unlike most political appointments, the head of ICE is required by statute to have at least five years of experience in both law enforcement and management.
Many immigration advocates, ICE employee representatives and homeland security experts said they were troubled by the nomination of Myers to take over an agency with so many problems.
"It appears she's got a tremendous amount of experience in money laundering, in banking and the financial areas," said Charles Showalter, president of the National Homeland Security Council, a union that represents 7,800 ICE agents, officers and support staff. "My question is: Who the hell is going to enforce the immigration laws?"
I. Michael Greenberger, a former Clinton administration official who heads the Center for Health and Homeland Security at the University of Maryland, said the Myers appointment represents "pre-Katrina thinking, where political relationships were a very large factor."
"Post-Katrina, we now see that people need to be eminently qualified," Greenberger said.
But Jim Pasco, executive director of the Fraternal Order of Police, which represents several thousand ICE employees, lauded Myers's government experience.
"That organization . . . is on some days almost dysfunctional," Pasco said. "I think Julie may be just the person to pull people and functions together to get them working right for a change."
During a hearing Thursday of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, Chairman Susan Collins (R-Maine) and ranking Democrat Joseph I. Lieberman (Conn.) quizzed Myers on whether her positions over the past five years qualified her for the job.
The most pointed questioning came from Voinovich, who said during the hearing that he wanted to meet with Chertoff to discuss Myers's qualifications. "I'd really like to have him spend some time with us, telling us personally why he thinks you're qualified for the job, because based on the resume, I don't think you are," Voinovich said.
But Marcie Ridgway, Voinovich's communications director, said yesterday that the Ohio senator had resolved his concerns by talking privately with both Chertoff and Myers. Ridgway said Voinovich was not available to speak directly about the issue.