The Business of Government Hour

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The Business of Government Hour features a conversation about management with a government executive who is changing the way government does business. The executives discuss their careers and the management challenges facing their organizations. Past government executives include Administrators, Chief Financial Officers, Chief Information Officers, Chief Operating Officers, Commissioners, Controllers, Directors, and Undersecretaries.

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Join the IBM Center for a weekly conversation about management with a government executive who is changing the way government does business.

John T. Morton interview

Friday, August 21st, 2009 - 20:00
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John T. Morton
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Sat, 08/22/2009
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John T. Morton
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Originally Broadcast August 22, 2008

Washington, DC

Mr. Morales: Welcome to another edition of The Business of Government Hour. I'm your host, Albert Morales.

Making our nation more secure by vigorously and fairly enforcing immigration and customs laws is what defines the efforts of the U.S. Immigration and Custom Enforcement for ICE. ICE performs this mission by focusing on the dismantling of criminal organizations that threaten national security, protecting borders, and investigating groups who exploit weaknesses in legitimate trade, travel, and financial systems.

With us today to discuss the organization which he leads is our very special guest, John Morton, Assistant Secretary for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

John, welcome to the show. It's a pleasure having you.

Mr. Morton: Thank you very much. It's a pleasure being here.

Mr. Morales: Also joining our conversation is Dave Abel, IBM's Homeland Security Practice Leader. Dave, welcome back, it's good to have you, as always.

Mr. Abel: Thank you. Al.

Mr. Morales: John, let's start by providing our listeners with some context about your organization. Tell me a bit about the mission and history of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement?

Mr. Morton: We're a relatively new Agency within the Federal Government, and we were created in the wake of the attacks of September 11th. We got our start in 2003, and we are a combination of parts of the former Customs Service and the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

And, in particular, we are a combination of the investigative authorities of those two predecessor Agencies, and the internal immigration enforcement authorities of the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

Mr. Morales: So with the combination of these two organizations, tell me a little bit about the scale of the operations now within ICE, and perhaps tell me a little bit about how you're organized, the size of the budget to the extent that you can describe that, things like number of fulltime employees, and your reach across the geography or the globe?

Mr. Morton: We're a very large organization. We have 20,000 employees, a budget of roughly $5.7 billion. Many people don't realize this but ICE is the second largest criminal investigative agency in the United States, the largest being the FBI.

We are divided by operational function. We have five main operational components -- the Federal Protective Service, Investigations, the Office of International Affairs, the Office of Intelligence, and then the Office of Detention and Removal Operations. And then we have a large number of support functions surrounding those. But we've grown considerably in the years since 2003, and we're now at 20,000 strong.

Mr. Morales: And field offices across the other world?

Mr. Morton: We have field offices throughout the United States, and we have offices in over 50 countries overseas. We have a very large international presence, one of the largest in the Government.

Mr. Abel: So let's go from the broader perspective of the worldwide coverage of ICE, and talk a little bit about your responsibilities. Can you tell us a little bit about your official responsibilities in the organization?

Mr. Morton: My principal responsibility is to set the overall focus and policy of the Agency, to see to it that we carry out the policy directions of the President and the Secretary, and to see to it that we faithfully and efficiently enforce the laws and responsibilities that are assigned to us by Congress.

When you're the leader of a relatively new organization you also have very significant responsibilities to further the seasoning process and to be a champion for the employees that are in the field trying to do good work every day, and I take that role very seriously.

Mr. Abel: Can you elaborate a little bit on how ICE supports the overall mission of the Department of Homeland Security and how those pieces fit together?

Mr. Morton: We are the principal investigative arm of the Department, and in sort of layman's terms, we're the detectives of the operation. And so we carry out a great deal of criminal investigation across a wide scope of responsibilities.

We enforce all of the criminal immigration laws, all of the customs laws, many laws relating to border security, child pornography, sex tourism, sex trafficking. We do a lot of work in international money laundering and, as many of you listeners may be aware, we also conduct a great deal of any narcotics work. We're very involved in efforts to support the new President in Mexico, Mr. Calderon, in his efforts to bring a more stable society in Mexico and to take the Cartels on.

The other big part of our work within the Department of Homeland Security is providing for serious immigration enforcement, that we share that responsibility with Customs and Border Protection. They are the inspectors and the principal line of defense at the borders and in our airports, and we are the formal removal authorities, and we identify and remove criminal aliens from the United States, people who have come here without papers or in violation of their visa. We run the nation's immigration detention system. We generally are charged with maintaining the integrity of the overall immigration of border controls.

Mr. Abel: So what I think is apparent in that is the long list of things that ICE has responsibility for doing, a long list of enforcement activities. And from the question that Al asked a little while ago, the geographic dispersion of where you have to do those things.

So one of the things that is obviously important as you have entered into this new role is to be able to quickly identify top priorities in the organization. Do you have some ideas about the top three priorities, the top three issues that you're facing right now?

Mr. Morton: From the very inception of the organization and, indeed, the Department in which we fit, a top priority has been the prevention of another terrorist attack on the United States. From our immediate perspective at ICE, that generally means the prevention of the entry of terrorists and others who would do us harm to the United States.

Second, we're about securing the borders. That means we're about investigating the smuggling of people, narcotics, guns, money, making sure that free and legitimate travel and trade happens in an expedited manner, but at the same time that sort of organized crime is kept out.

Finally, we have a strong focus on making sure that we have tough but fair immigration enforcement. That's an area of great debate in our country, and it's an area where the president wants to see substantial reform, and it's an area where we play a very critical role and we take it very seriously.

We have an immediate focus on criminal aliens. In a world of limited resources we focus first and foremost on those people who are creating active harm in the community, and that means identifying and removing people who've committed crimes and shouldn't be here and are in OUR state, and Federal, and local jails.

Mr. Abel: So although you're relatively new in your current role, you're certainly not a stranger to Federal law enforcement. Can you tell me a little bit about your career path and how you got started?

Mr. Morton: Well, I started out actually as a Peace Corp volunteer, got a taste for Government service at that point. And I guess at the end of the day I was rule oriented by nature, so I went off to law school and I became a prosecutor.

I started out, first, with the now defunct Immigration and Naturalization Service, and I held a variety of jobs in the field and then in headquarters. And then I went to work for the then Deputy Attorney General of the United States, Eric Holder, who as fate would have it would turn around and ultimately become the Attorney General now.

And I spent several years in main justice, and then I became a prosecutor in little old Alexandria, Virginia, right across the river from here, and spent many years as a Federal prosecutor, and enjoyed every minute of it, and then went back to main justice where I became a Manager in the Criminal Division, ultimately ending up as Acting Deputy Assistant Attorney General of the Criminal Division before the President nominated me for this job.

Mr. Morales: So as you reflect back on your experiences, both say at the Peace Corp and with the Department of Justice, how have these experiences prepared you for your current leadership role and perhaps shaped your leadership style and your management approach?

Mr. Morton: Those experiences have shaped I think me professionally in very dramatic but good terms. I am all about trying to get it right. I've been a career Government employee my entire professional career. As a prosecutor you feel a great weight and responsibility. You feel a great obligation to pursue things on the merits and in light of the law, and I don't intend to pursue my duties any differently as Assistant Secretary.

In terms of leadership, I'm not a yeller and a screamer. I try to lead by example. I want to motivate the people that work for me. I want them to feel proud of the work that they do, to recognize that Government service is a great honor and a privilege, particularly law enforcement.

And I try to lead very much in that spirit, motivate the people around me to recognize the great responsibility that they've been entrusted, and to get the most out of those people through energy and innovation, and not through fear and hammering people over the head.

Mr. Morales: What about ICE's border enforcement efforts? We will ask John Morton, Assistant Secretary for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, to share with us when the conversation about Management continues on The Business of Government Hour.

(Intermission)

Mr. Morales: Welcome back to The Business of Government Hour. I'm your host, Albert Morales. And with us today in this segment discussing critical border enforcement efforts, is John Morton, Assistant Secretary for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Also joining us from IBM is Dave Abel.

John, before we tackle specific initiatives, perhaps you can give us a sense of the enforcement approach or the underlying principles that inform your approach to Federal law enforcement as you begin to transition an Agency under your new leadership? What's your strategic vision for ICE as it continues to evolve?

Mr. Morton: Well, we need to establish clear enforcement priorities. As we discussed in the first segment, ICE has tremendously broad authorities and responsibilities. And it's very important that we focus our resources on the immediate task at hand.

Securing the border is critically important. Going after serious organized crime is critically important. We live in an environment in which it's not so much mom-and-pops crime at the border, unfortunately, it's serious organized criminal syndicates operating outside of the United States in many instances, seeking to violate our laws on a daily basis, and they're making a lot of money in it, they're serious about it, and they're causing us a great deal of sustained harm as a country and we've got to get serious about trying to stop that.

And there are many ways to do that, but one of them is to investigate them, prosecute them, and put them in jail, and that's one of our main responsibilities.

We also have to restore basic integrity to our immigration, customs, and border controls. We just can't have a serious system if it is marked by lawlessness or gross inefficiency.

And so that's a major focus for me, a major philosophy, and for our organization we basically want to be a first rate criminal investigative agency and a first rate immigration enforcement agency.

Mr. Morales: Now, you've been clear with border enforcement as being one of the key components of your mission. Could you tell us a bit more about ICE's Border Enforcement Security Task Force, I believe it's referred to as BEST? To what extent does this Task Force represent an innovative model for collaborative law enforcement?

Mr. Morton: I tell you, it's one of the, been one of the more exciting parts of this job, is to come to something from the outside and see a good idea in practice, growing and working well. That is our BEST Task Forces.

What is innovative about them is that they are truly interagency collaborations, not only interagency, international. We have partners from all across Federal, state, local, travel law enforcement, coming together with us in our BEST Task Forces to focus on serious organized crime along the border.

And we all come together, we bring all of our various authorities together, which are considerable, we combine them, we involve officials from other countries, for example, Mexico. We have a number of Mexican officers in our BEST.

And we all try to set our respective badges aside, come together, and really tackle the serious crime that's occurring along the border, the concept has worked extremely well. We've expanded it to the northern border. We've expanded it to ports.

We have a number of port BESTs focused on maritime security. As you know there are a number of very large ports in the United States in which an enormous amount of commerce, goods, and trade occurs through, and we've expanded there.

It really is exciting to see this level of collaboration work, and work well. We're having our second annual BEST Conference, very excited about that.

Mr. Abel: Governor Napolitano and then Secretary Napolitano highlighted and noted that violence along the southern border with Mexico is a bi-national threat, and you've highlighted the work that you have with law enforcement organizations in Mexico to address that threat. Can you elaborate a little bit on efforts to combat southwest border violence and, in particular, its relationship with the secure border initiative?

Mr. Morton: I'd be happy to. Well, you have got it right, the Secretary is very focused on securing the border and the troubles along the southwest border. Obviously, as a border Governor she brings a tremendous amount of experience and knowhow to the problem. She gets it, she's a strong supporter of law enforcement. She understands the challenges along the border, she understands how law enforcement can be a very positive solution to some of the challenges. And she understands that working with Mexico is critical.

In light of that, ICE, under my leadership, has really strengthened its relationship with Mexican law enforcement authorities. The first foreign trip I took as Assistant Secretary was to Mexico, and the second one I took was back to Mexico.

We have a number of very substantial bilateral enforcement initiatives underway in Mexico. They are facing a number of very, very serious internal challenges from organized crime, not the least of which centers around the trafficking of narcotics to the United States, but also people smuggling, sex trafficking, money laundering.

And many of the problems that they face are exacerbated by the flow of illicit contraband and money, not from Mexico to the United States, but from the United States to Mexico.

We need to recognize that this is really a shared problem and one that we have to tackle as partners, and that's very much the approach I have taken with Mexico. There has been a C change in attitude among Mexican law enforcement with regard to cooperation with the United States, the present Administration in Mexico, the Calderon Administration, is really serious about this.

We are engaged in real law enforcement cooperation in a way that I have never seen before in my nearly over now 15 years in Federal law enforcement. It's a very exciting time. It's a challenging time but it's an exciting time.

Mr. Abel: So you mentioned the danger, not only of things that move north across the border from Mexico to the United States, but south across the border from the United States to Mexico.

I'm interested in particular on the threat of the movement of weapons that come from the United States into Mexico and, in particular, an initiative within ICE called Operation Armas Cruzadas. Can you tell us a little bit about what that is and how it addresses the flow of weapons southbound?

Mr. Morton: It is an initiative in which we teamed up with our partners in Mexico and our partners at Customs and Border Protection to investigate the flow of illicit weapons from the United States to Mexico.

Mexico has very different laws when it comes to firearms, the possession and use of firearms, than we do here in the United States and their importation is closely controlled and regulated.

And what Armas Cruzadas does is it leverages the resources of our BEST Task Forces, our ICE Offices in Mexico, and the resources of Customs and Border Protection along the border at ports of entry doing southbound inspections, and the resources of our partners in Mexico to intercept, identify, trace, and investigate firearms that are seized in Mexico and that were upon further investigation determined to have been smuggled across the border from the United States into Mexico.

And we try to match every seizure, whether it be at our border as we catch things coming across or in Mexico with an investigation to try to determine how do these guns make their way from the United States into Mexico.

Mr. Morales: So we talked a little bit in the first segment about the support of ICE from the Department of Homeland Security. In something like this operation or when we're focused on the illegal flow of money, can you tell us a little bit about the relationship between ICE, a little bit more about the relationship between ICE and CBP, Customs and Border Protection, and how relative roles and responsibilities are balanced between those organizations?

Mr. Morton: Yes, in very broad terms, Customs and Border Protection is responsible for the inspection process along the border and primarily responsible for interdiction of contraband and illegal entrants.

The Border Control classic example, along the line, they are primarily responsible for first line immigration enforcement along the border. The same is true of the inspectors, the CBP inspectors at the airport, who inspect you when you come in and if you don't have your documents in order they will detain you. That's not a ICE function, that is a CBP function.

Where we come in is we have the criminal investigative authority. So they inspect, they interdict, we investigate the wrongdoing that is uncovered. And we also have a very important and complementary authority to run the basic formal removal process, the detention facilities, the -- we have all of the immigration prosecutors, the hearings, that's us.

Where we come in is we have the criminal investigative authority. So they inspect, they interdict, we investigate the wrongdoing that is uncovered. And we also have a very important and complementary authority to run the basic formal removal process, the detention facilities, the -- we have all of the immigration prosecutors, the hearings, that's us.

Mr. Abel: So going back to your description of the best task forces, tell me a little bit about some of the efforts around partnering with state and local enforcement agencies, around locating and removing criminal aliens. And more specifically how does the 287(g) Program enable these partnerships and to what extent does it provide a force multiplier? And are there plans to expand this program?

Mr. Morton: The 287(g) Program is very poorly understood, so let me give you a two-second version on what it is. 287(g) is named after a provision in the law that allows the Department of Homeland Security, through me, to delegate certain immigration enforcement powers to the state and local law enforcement.

The Program has been in existence for several years. It's entirely voluntary. The state and local law enforcement have to apply to ICE for authority to carry out immigration enforcement and ICE has to agree.

In the past there's been criticism, particularly from the general accounting office, that ICE did not exercise sufficient oversight over the Program or give state and local law enforcement clear enough priorities in the administration of the Program.

The Secretary and I have just issued new guidelines for the Program and, in particular, we have created a standard 287(g) template that will govern all future activities under the Program, both in response to our own sort of management concerns and some of the issues that are raised in the GAO report, we've decided to focus the program first and foremost on the identification and removal of criminal aliens. In a world of limited resources we need to focus on the worst of the worst first.

So the 287(g) agreements and Programs going forward are going to be very focused on the identification and removal of people who pose a threat to public safety. That's the way the Program has traditionally operated and practiced, anyway. Most of the state and local law enforcement agencies that come to us want immigration powers in the context, for example, of their local jails. They, sheriffs, city police chiefs, run the vast majority of the nation's jails.

And they arrest a large number of people who are here unlawfully or otherwise deportable for committing crimes and they want authority to deal with those people, and it makes perfect sense for us to collaborate with them, to join together and to use our collective resources to try to identify and remove as many of those people as possible.

The same is true with trying to work together to identify immigrant gang members on the street, MS13, for example, a clear danger to the community. These people are often here unlawfully, they're committing crimes.

And I'm more than willing to extend delegation to the state and local law enforcement interested in tackling those kind of problems and working closely with us to do it in a way that's professional and has transparency for the general public.

Mr. Morales: So, again, it's about collaboration with the other organizations and agencies?

Mr. Morton: Absolutely, it's all about how can we leverage additional resources in state and local communities to attack problems of mutual concerns, namely, people who are here unlawfully and are committing crimes.

Mr. Morales: How is ICE combating such problems as human trafficking? We will ask John Morton, Assistant Secretary for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, to share with us when the conversation about Management continues on The Business of Government Hour.

(Intermission)

Mr. Morales: Welcome back to The Business of Government Hour. I'm your host, Albert Morales. And with us today and in this segment, discussing critical border enforcement issues, is John Morton, Assistant Secretary for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Also joining us from IBM is Dave Abel.

John, according to the U.S. Department of State an estimated 800,000 men, women, and children are smuggled across international borders every year. Many of these victims are subsequently trafficked into prostitution or other forced labor situations.

What are ICE's efforts to fight human trafficking and smuggling, and to what extent has ICE made significant progress in fighting these forms of modern day slavery?

Mr. Morton: I think that human trafficking and the related problem of abusive and indifferent alien smuggling is one of the great challenges of our time. It's a very serious problem. It occurs on a grand scale. It occurs outside of the reach of Federal law enforcement in many, many instances. We have a problem here in the United States, and there's an even bigger problem elsewhere.

The good news is that ICE has very robust investigative capabilities here and very important authorities. It's one of our central criminal responsibilities on the immigration side. We work very closely with the Department of Justice to investigate and prosecute these cases. We also work well with the FBI, with the other principal investigator in this area. We do a lot of work in the related areas of child exploitation and child sex tourism. These things all tend to come together

And because we are the nation's principal investigators, indeed, almost exclusive investigator of international alien smuggling, we come across these problems regularly, and we have the skills and expertise to tackle them.

What are we doing? Well, we have the Human Smuggling and Trafficking Center. ICE is the Chair of that Center, that's devoted to trying to identify the groups and routes that are used to traffic people to the United States.

We're working very closely with the Civil Rights Division in the United States. We're working increasingly with our international partners. We just conducted training for foreign law enforcement and foreign non-Governmental organizations interested in this issue. We're going to do some more.

The new Ambassador for Trafficking, Lou DeBaca, also a Prosecutor, and now he's been appointed and confirmed to the position of Ambassador at the State Department, and I think we're going to have a much closer relationship with the State Department as a result.

And I'm hoping that we're going to really be able to bring the combined resources of the Federal Government together in a way that builds on, frankly, the good work that was done in the previous Administration on this score, and just to go after this pernicious illegal activity.

Mr. Morales: So I was reading an article the other day around a massive black market that has emerged around fraudulent identification and travel documents. And I would imagine that this is a relatively big issue in your mission. To what extent does the Document and Benefit Fraud Task Force play into your Agency's overall response to this issue and this phenomena?

Mr. Morton: Well, first of all, you're right, it's a big problem. Fraudulent documents are all too common. They're of great concern as we try to secure the borders and prevent criminals and terrorists and others from entering the country.

If we are going to have good border security, if we're going to have serious worksite enforcement, if we're going to have good immigration and customs controls we need our identity documents to be secure. We need secure passports, we need secure licenses, birth certificates, all of the things that are used to engage in interactions with the State.

The problem is significant enough that we long ago recognized that ICE trying to do this alone was not going to get the job done, and so that's where we came up with the concept for the Document and Benefit Fraud Task Force.

As it turns out, the very first one was in the Eastern District of Virginia, where I happened to be a prosecutor, and I was the prosecutor assigned to that Task Force.

And we did a number of very, very large cases in Virginia. It worked well. We brought together Federal law enforcement agencies, the FBI, ICE, with a number of state law enforcement agencies, local police departments. Fairfax County, for example, was a critical member of our team, did much of the work.

And we married that with the considerable power of the United States Attorney's Office. We did a number of very sophisticated investigations involving undercover operations, and we brought a lot of people to justice, and that model worked well.

And so as an agency, ICE, long before I ever got there, began to replicate the task force concept elsewhere, and it's been successful. I intend to continue to support it, you know, particularly where you have large organized assaults on the integrity of the system.

For example, major visa frauds or major passport frauds, we absolutely have to have a firm response. The integrity of the system falls apart, if you don't.

Mr. Abel: The opportunity to work, it's a powerful magnet that draws many people to our country illegally. DHS recently released workforce enforcement guidance to your agents in the field. Can you outline this new strategy for us and its goal, and just tell us a little bit about what it emphasizes?

Mr. Morton: Sure, my view is that if we are going to make any sustained headway when it comes to restoring our borders and dealing with illegal immigration we are going to have to have a serious worksite enforcement.

And so our aim, my aim, the Secretary's aim, is to develop a truly national program to deter the unlawful employment of individuals. How are we going to do that?

Well, we're going to do that by marshaling all of the statutory authorities that are assigned to the Department of Homeland Security, mainly through ICE. To, on the one hand, investigate and deter those who are knowingly violating the law, and on the other to work with and encourage the many, many employers who want to do it right, and want to comply voluntarily with the requirements imposed by law.

That's changing, and we are going to be in a situation where we're back to exercising our civil enforcement powers and levying significant fines against those employers who don't comply, we're going to conduct I-9 audits.

As you may know, we just launched around over 650 I-9 audits, more in one single operation than was done all of last year. We're doing that to signal in open, transparent terms that we're serious about this, that there is a requirement for employers to verify that their employees have work authorization, and that extends to everyone, citizen, lawful permanent resident, or immigrant on other status, and that we expect people to play by the rules and fill out the I-9s, and we're going to come and we're going to check.

At the very same time, there is no one in the country who will be a greater supporter of voluntary compliance by employers. I want employers who are trying to comply with the law to look upon me as a partner, and E-Verify is an important part of that. That's the Electronic Verification Program that allows employers to verify whether someone whom they are hiring or employing has work authorization.

I want to reach out to those employers who want to go above and beyond E-Verify, to work with us to make sure that their employees are here lawfully and have work authorization.

The country is better served the more voluntary compliance we have. It makes much more sense for the taxpayer, it makes much more sense for ICE for compliance to come voluntarily rather than as a result of special agents going out and visiting people, executing search warrants or bringing charges against them.

The reality of the situation is there's a sustained group of people who want to violate the law, and we're going to continue and investigate them, and we're going to continue to seek to prosecute them if they do so, particularly if they do so on a large scale or they engage in abusive employment practices.

I'm not -- I don't mean to suggest in any na�ve way that there's not going to be a need for ICE to engage in aggressive investigation. I think there always will be, but the point is that we want to be good partners to the overwhelming majority of employers who want to play by the rules.

Mr. Morales: It's interesting that we've talked significantly about physical things. We've talked about people and money, we've talked about weapons, but one of the areas that we haven't touched on yet is the internet, and the internet provides a tool for interconnectivity across borders. It also provides a tool for exploitation for cyber crime and for other types of crime. Can you tell us a little bit about what ICE is doing through the Cyber Crime Center, or C3, to combat cyber crime?

Mr. Morton: Yes, obviously, the internet is one of the great innovations of our time, and I say that in a very positive way. It's transformed all of our lives and generally for the good.

But there is a darker side to it, and it has facilitated a whole host of crimes, and many things that have occurred in the mail now occur on the internet. Child pornography is a classic example. Thirty or forty years ago it would have been magazines with pictures transmitted through the mail between people. Now, it's all done over the internet by e-mail exchange, et cetera.

So it's the same kinds of crimes, just done in a different forum and a very powerful forum, and a forum that exists simultaneously at once all around the world.

And which poses unique challenges for us at law enforcement. We're very fortunate as a law enforcement agency to have the Cyber Crime Center, it's a specialized Center that focuses on computer forensics, internet analysis, and it enables us to follow much of our traditional crime from the street and now into the internet and to investigated just the way we might otherwise have in the past.

It's particularly helpful to us in the areas of child pornography and exploitation, but it's equally useful in other areas. For example, we were just talking about document and benefit fraud. That occurs with regularity on the corner of Fourth and Main, but it also occurs with regularity in cyber space. People are openly selling stolen and counterfeit documents on the internet, and we need a sophisticated means like we have at C3 to sort of investigate those crimes and try to bring the perpetrators to justice.

Mr. Morales: John, we've talked about your roles in investigation, capture and prosecution of violations of immigration customs laws, but I also understand that ICE is responsible for one of the largest, most transient, and diverse detainee populations in U.S. custody. What are your plans to reform the immigration detention system to make the system and removal process more efficient, effective, and humane?

Mr. Morton: I have fairly strong thoughts on that matter. I have fairly aggressive plans. You're right, we run a very large detention system. On any given day we have about 32,000 people in custody. On average it works out to about 400,000 people a year.

We detain those people in over 350 facilities throughout the United States. Most of those facilities are actually city and county jails or private contract facilities that we use by contract.

Immigration detention is a civil function, it is not a penal function. Over the years, however, the system has largely become dependent on excess jail space, and so you have not had a detention system that was designed to meet the immediate statutory responsibility and powers of the Agency, and this is a problem that has not been in the making for the last two years, it's been a problem that's been in the making for decades.

And I want to use my time as Assistant Secretary to deal with that problem in a very open and forthright way. Given the amount of money that the Agency spends on detention, in my view we ought to have detention facilities that are designed for the particular populations that we detain, which are sometimes the same population as the penal system, but often not.

We detain everybody, you know, people all the way from someone just coming at the airport with bad documents whose a serious risk of flight, to hardened criminals who are coming out of jail and need to go home.

And we need our facilities to recognize that variety, recognize that people don't always need to be detained in the same setting, and to have facilities that provide for good medical care and custodial care for a population that is generally held for much shorter periods than people who are incarcerated, who are held for long periods of time.

So I'm going to spend a lot of time working on that. Just to be clear, this isn't about not detaining people. ICE is going to continue to detain people on a large scale. It's a very important power of immigration enforcement, it's a necessary power. Many, many of the people that we encounter as part of our duties are either a serious risk of flight or a real danger to the community.

We're increasingly detaining very serious criminal offenders who are coming out of state, local, and city jails, and those people who need to be detained.

So this is about designing a more efficient and well designed civil immigration detention system than it is about not detaining people.

We're going to continue to detain people, we're going to continue to detain them on the same levels that we have before, we're just going to do it differently in better designed facilities, and we're going to try to have more efficiency and thought for the taxpayer and those people involved.

Mr. Morales: So it's really about better matching the system to the mission that you have at hand?

Mr. Morton: Absolutely, and doing it in an efficient way. And right now, as I said before, we've got over 350 different facilities that we use. It's not clear to me that we need to have quite that many.

Mr. Morales: What does the future hold for the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement? We will ask John Morton, Assistant Secretary for ICE, to share with us when the conversation about Management continues on The Business of Government Hour.

(Intermission)

Mr. Morales: Welcome back to The Business of Government Hour. I'm your host, Albert Morales. And with us today and in our final segment, discussing the future of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement is John Morton, Assistant Secretary for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Also joining us from IBM is Dave Abel.

John, would you elaborate on the collaborative efforts your organization has with other DHS components, as well as other Federal agencies or bureaus around the areas of sharing information, intelligence, and border security efforts?

Mr. Morton: Yes, we have very close working relationships with many of the components within DHS and many of our sister law enforcement agencies outside of DHS.

And this is, I think, been one of the silver linings to 9-11 is that there have been, there's much greater collaboration between Federal law enforcement agencies than I have seen in the past. And, as I said earlier, I've been in this business quite a long time, and there's been a noticeable improvement.

I'm personally committed to that, having been a prosecutor I just take a dim view of turf wars, and I continue to have that dim view even though I'm now the Assistant Secretary of ICE.

And so I took immediate steps to resolve some of our outstanding differences with our sister law enforcement agencies, and in particular the Drug Enforcement Administration and the ATF.

We signed first an MOU with the DEA to resolve some differences we had over the enforcement of the narcotics laws. And we came to a much better understanding about when I should investigate what is known, or what are known as Title 21 offenses, Title 21 is part of the United States Code and deals with serious narcotics offenses, and we agreed that there's, mutually agreed that there's an important role for ICE at the border and at ports of entry.

And you're going to see ICE and DEA work much, much more closely when it comes to combating international narcotics smuggling.

The same is true with ATF, we signed a similar agreement, recognizing their authorities, recognizing our authorities, and committing the two Agencies to join effort to combat the international trafficking and firearms. Very important in Mexico. ATF is going to be our partner every step of the way in Mexico.

The new Acting Director of ATF, Ken Nelson, is again a longtime professional colleague of mine. In fact, was in ASUA in Eastern District of Virginia. This part of the world seems to have produced a lot of Government leaders out of one little office across the river in Alexandria. But Ken is a first-rate professional, so.

Mr. Morales: John, earlier in the show you used the word integrity, and I would argue that integrity is the soul of any law enforcement agency. Could you elaborate on this strategy and the importance of individual integrity in order to have success in an organization, such as ICE?

Mr. Morton: I think in law enforcement the integrity you have as a person is your calling card. I think that's generally true in Government, and it's particularly true in law enforcement.

You exercise tremendous power, you have enormous responsibility on behalf of the sovereign, in our case the United States, and your job is to protect the community at large but to do it in a way that protects our civil liberties and recognizes that Government has to be carried out in a very transparent and honest way.

So law enforcement is not a good place for hard partisans. It's about trying to get things right on the merits, balancing things, being fair, recognizing that you have to be firm but fair, that compromise is part of the process.

And so I've just tried to do that throughout my career. I see that throughout law enforcement, and I just think it's critical, and if we didn't have that kind of approach we would not have the very strong law enforcement system that we do.

I've traveled the world many times over, in my days on this earth, and I will tell you one of the things I do take great pride in as an American is that our system of justice is I think really one of the very, very best that you can find anywhere. It really does try to get it right.

Mr. Abel: So we've talked a lot about what the organization is, where the organization as been. I'd like to just spend a second on the future. What trends are coming, what kind of impact are they going to have on the trajectory that you'll take the organization over the course of the next couple of years?

Mr. Morton: Well, the big challenge out there right now is obviously comprehensive immigration reform. And the President is committed to it, the Secretary is committed to it. I'm committed to it.

We'll see how that plays out. There are many different actors. There are difficult issues. And there are a lot of competing interests that need to be considered. But that is going to be an important barometer for the future.

I think in more narrow terms for ICE the future is bright, and you have a young agency that went through a difficult transition, where the parts of two different agencies were merged into one.

We have really turned the corner, the glass is half full. We have exciting responsibilities. Our mission is a good mission. I have traveled a lot in my time as Assistant Secretary, and I can't tell you how pleased I am every time I go somewhere. We just have good people working for our Agency, and as a career employee I really like to see that.

So I'm excited. The challenge for us is we've got a lot of good work out there, we need to make sure that we're focusing first and foremost on the priority areas that need to be addressed, and we need to do it professionally, we need to do it in a way that is transparent.

We need to help educate the public that, you know, about what ICE really is and does. There is a tendency to view ICE in terms of the articles, you know, on the front page of the New York Times or the Washington Post, and those tend to focus on the more difficult parts of immigration enforcement, and that tends to dominate the public focus and the media focus.

When ICE, as we said before, it's the second largest criminal investigative agency in the country. It's investigating money laundering, narcotics investigations, going after the Cartels, gun trafficking, sex trafficking, child exploitation, alien smugglers, and on a huge scale of 6,500 special agents out there, trying to protect the American public every day. You don't see as much of that in the paper as you should.

That's part of my job is to let people know what a good organization they have in ICE, that their tax dollars are being well spent, and spent on things that are important to this country and need to be done and done well.

Mr. Morales: John, we're nearing the end of our time. You clearly have demonstrated a clear passion for your work and for our country, so I'm curious what advice might you give a person who is out there, who may be considering a career in public service?

Mr. Morton: If you want to get rich look somewhere else, but if you want a lifelong reward I would think about public service. I have found it so personally satisfying to work on behalf of the United States. It's just a lot easier to get up every day and to know that you're trying to advance the common cause. I think that's particularly true in law enforcement, where your job is public safety.

And I'm extremely excited to be the Assistant Secretary. That's what our job is. When I was a Federal prosecutor there was no greater honor than getting up in court and announcing that I represented the United States. And the truth of the matter is you do represent the United States, you really do represent the United States.

And you're putting people in jail, and that's good work but it's also awesome work. I mean your actions lead to somebody going to jail.

So I think, you know, the way to look at Government service is as a great honor and privilege. I feel so fortunate to have the -- had the opportunities to do what I've done, to have the job that I've done, and there's no other place you can get that but in the Federal Government.

And it, also, and I think one of the beauties of it is that you don't have to represent a particular interest to an extreme. You get to do, to try to do what's right.

As a Government employee, balanced perspective is critical, trying to reach the common good is critical. You're not an extreme advocate. Your job is to try to get it right, and that's a very rewarding and satisfying position to be in.

Mr. Morales: John, it's a very powerful perspective. Thank you. We have reached the end of our time. I want to thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule to join us here but, more importantly, Dave and I would like to thank you for your dedicated service to our country across your time at the Department of Justice and now at Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Mr. Morton: Well, thank you very much for having me. Thanks for having this kind of show. I think that your taking the time to interview me instead of Justin Timberlake or somebody else like that is good. I think Justin gets far more requests for interviews than I do.

What I would just say to your listeners is if you want to learn more about us go to the website, www.ice.gov or to DHS' website named DHS.

But I think at the end of the day if most people were able to look inside of ICE and DHS they would be pleasantly surprised to see that there are a lot of very, very good people, just trying to do good work and to get to a good result. So thank you.

Mr. Morales: Great, thank you.

This has been The Business of Government Hour, featuring a conversation with John Morton, Assistant Secretary for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

My Co-Host has been Dave Abel, IBM's Homeland Security Practice leader.

As you enjoy the rest of your day, please take time to remember the men and women of our armed and civil services abroad who may not be able to hear this morning's show on how we're improving their government, but who deserve our unconditional respect and support.

For The Business of Government Hour, I'm Albert Morales. Thank you for listening.

Announcer: This has been The Business of Government Hour. Be sure to join us every Saturday at 9:00 a.m. And visit us on the web at businessofgovernment.org. There you can learn more about our programs, and get a transcript of today's conversation. Until next week, it's businessofgovernment.org.

John T. Morton interview
08/22/2009
John T. Morton

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