E.g., 09/24/2023
E.g., 09/24/2023
"One Face at the Border" - Is It Working?

"One Face at the Border" - Is It Working?


CBP Officers board a ship to examine cargo (photo by James Tourtellotte for CBP).

Proposals to merge U.S. border-related agencies number in the dozens and date back nearly 100 years. Yet it took the dramatic events of September 11, 2001, to overcome bureaucratic inertia and begin making unified border management a reality.

On September 2, 2003, nearly one year after establishment of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) through the Homeland Security Act of 2002, then-DHS Secretary Tom Ridge announced the "One Face at the Border" (OFAB) initiative.

OFAB was designed to eliminate the previous separation of immigration, customs, and agriculture functions at U.S. air, land, and sea ports of entry, and institute a unified border inspection process.

This article examines the advantages and disadvantages of the merger to date and outlines some of the obstacles to be overcome. The findings are based primarily on over 80 interviews conducted between the summer of 2004 and winter of 2005 in Miami; San Diego, California and Tijuana, Baja California; Detroit, Michigan and Windsor, Ontario; and Washington, DC.


Officials at the ports of entry perform inspections to ensure that all persons and the goods they bring with them can lawfully enter the country.

In the past, this included:

  1. immigration inspections by the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) to ensure that the person had valid documentation and was legally entering the United States,
  2. customs inspections by the U.S. Customs Service to ensure the legality of the goods; and
  3. agriculture inspections by the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) to ensure the legality and health of plants and farm products being transported.

With the creation of DHS, these three functions were placed under one roof for the first time in history. The legacy inspectors from the three different agencies were merged into DHS's Bureau of Customs and Border Protection (CBP) in March 2003, and they were converted into CBP officers by July 2004.

At the time of the merger, there were approximately 18,000 inspectors (10,000 from Customs, 6,500 from INS, and 1,500 from APHIS). Their ranks have been supplemented by over 2,000 new CBP officers who have been hired and trained since September 2003.

The CBP officer was designed to be the principal front-line officer cross-trained to perform all three inspection functions, simultaneously preventing the entry of terrorists and terrorist weapons and facilitating legitimate trade and travel.

CBP combined the passenger analysis units of the legacy agencies and began joint secondary inspection (by former immigration and customs officers) for those deemed at high risk for terrorism. It also created a single chain of command, expanded antiterrorism training, and developed new uniforms and patches for a unified appearance.

DHS asserted that the ability to use employees interchangeably for all three primary functions would allow the agency to more effectively utilize its personnel, accelerating the processing of legitimate travelers and targeting additional resources toward potential risks, thus enhancing efforts to secure the homeland.


As might be expected with any merger of agencies and functions of this magnitude, the implementation has resulted in changes for the better and for the worse, and, in some cases, little discernible change.

Improvements. OFAB has created some welcome efficiencies in terms of port management and staffing, and such gains may increase over time with additional training and retooled facilities.

Advantages of having one agency and one port director responsible at the border include a single point of contact for outsiders, a reduction in duplicative efforts, and the ability to allocate resources more effectively. Ports now operate under the same alert level, and there is a single policy regarding use of force, firearms, and personal search. The consolidation also has led to better incident reporting, data management, automation, and travel and payroll systems.

Moreover, the infusion of resources into CBP has led to the procurement of security-oriented technology such as radiation portal monitors and personal radiation detectors, license plate readers, and video surveillance at and between ports. (This has supplemented other new DHS technologies such as the US-VISIT entry-exit system, machines that x-ray cargo-laden trucks, and the National Targeting Center.)

Increased congressional appropriations also have allowed for the hiring of additional staff, while the ability to use former customs inspectors for primary passenger processing has alleviated long-standing immigration staffing shortages. In addition, disparities in officers' pay and scheduling were eliminated by the Customs Officer Pay Reform Act of 2004, which created a single overtime and premium pay system for inspectors. This additional staffing flexibility has allowed port directors to tailor the work schedule to the unique needs of each port.

The integration of the inspectors was further enhanced by the clarity of the CBP mission — preventing terrorists and terrorist weapons from entering the United States — which has motivated and united many of the inspectors. While the cross-training is not yet fully implemented, it has given legacy employees a window into the world of those who used to be in other agencies and thus more respect for the complexity of the work, the mission, and the necessary knowledge base. (CBP has developed an agency-wide training plan that is being rolled out based on operational priorities and workforce needs.)

CBP officers also now benefit from the ability to utilize immigration, customs, and agriculture authorities in their inspections rather than being limited to the rules in their particular mandate. Indeed, because the creation of DHS and merger of the inspection agencies did not change the underlying laws or regulations that govern inspections, inspectors still are required to do customs, immigration, and agriculture inspections. However, a single CBP inspector now performs them all at once on the primary line.

Finally, there has been a notable effort to increase professionalism among the CBP corps, most directly through the September 2004 Professionalism Initiative. The eight-week training sessions highlighted the importance of first impressions, including an officer's words and appearance, and of the impact of an individual's conduct on the organization. CBP stressed treating people with courtesy, dignity, and respect, as well as exercising discretion for those with technical immigration violations who pose no threat.

Weaknesses. There are a number of important areas, however, where OFAB has had a negative impact on the functioning of CBP and on its ability to achieve its stated goals.

First, there appears to be a lack of immigration expertise in CBP, both at headquarters and in the field. This seems to result from:

  1. a failure to use the expertise of legacy agency employees (examples included the lack of a permanent hire to head the immigration policy office or shifts at ports of entry in which no supervisor with immigration expertise was on duty);
  2. the loss of specialized knowledge (including early retirements and the transfer of many former employees to other DHS agencies or programs); and
  3. a failure to develop new specialized expertise (the integrated training for new officers is developing generalists).

Second, inconsistency and unpredictability in policies, application, and adjudications at the border are a problem. Examples include requiring advance passenger manifests for airlines but not cruise ships, periodic traffic flushing at land borders, inconsistent treatment of asylum seekers at ports of entry, and uncertainty by inspectors about certain visa categories and the correct duration of stay. This presents challenges for the integrity of the immigration system, for U.S. security, and for individual travelers who must deal with the consequences.

Third, there are concerns that centralization has gone too far, particularly the micromanagement of personnel choices at the field level, the required pleasantries and appearance standards resulting from the professionalism training sessions, and the top-down desire to "control the message." (CBP is far more centralized than was either the Customs Service or the legacy INS.)

Moreover, there is a disconnect between the field and headquarters, with little back-and-forth on decision making. Respondents indicated the lack of internal feedback mechanisms, and the failure to solicit expertise is serving the agency poorly in terms of both policy decisions and employee morale.

Fourth, some CBP-specific policies, including new standards of conduct, have contributed to an atmosphere of fear and uncertainty within the agency, as well as resentment regarding attempts to restrict privacy and free speech in the name of security.

This atmosphere was exacerbated by DHS-wide policy changes, including a requirement that all DHS employees sign a secrecy pledge (proposed in May 2004 but rescinded in January 2005) and the revamping of the DHS human resource system that replaces the "general schedule" of pay with a pay-for-performance system (issued in final form in February 2005).

Fifth, there has been a decline in proactive outreach efforts and transparency more generally. Many community-based stakeholders were completely unfamiliar with OFAB or the vision it represents. Formal and long-standing local liaison meetings between the government and community-based groups or stakeholders, such as immigration attorneys, airport/seaport authorities, and private trade and travel groups, either have been eliminated or greatly reduced.

To date, there have been no internal evaluations of One Face at the Border, and though CBP has described OFAB as a powerful weapon in the war on terrorism, the security-related benefits are unclear.

It is important to disaggregate valid management-related reasons for integration from the security-related ones. Without internal metrics, it is difficult to evaluate program effectiveness in terms of meeting stated goals or finding unintended impacts. It also is difficult to ensure that resources are being well spent or to develop necessary policy adjustments.

Moreover, the lack of evaluation lends fuel to the fire of perceptions that CBP hands down policies without explanation or review and without input from field experts.

Finally, there has been the unfortunate tendency to create unrealistic expectations, make unsubstantiated assertions, and present a positive public face, reality notwithstanding.

Whether misleadingly promising fully interchangeable officers or making false promises that inspectors will be asked to take on the new missions only after full training, such statements create false expectations and unachievable goals, harming morale and setting the organization up for failure. They also lead to missed opportunities to engage in true partnerships with the Congress and with stakeholders, and to make adjustments that might strengthen the program.

External Obstacles. For many, it is difficult to tell that operational or institutional changes have actually occurred at the border, as lines are not drastically longer or shorter than they were previously, as predictable crossing times remain an elusive goal, and as most travelers at the land borders never knew which agency was conducting the primary inspection anyway.

Moreover, until full cross-training is completed, immigration, customs, and agriculture-related issues often continue to be handled by inspectors from the legacy agencies. This is understandable given the complexity of the underlying laws, the differences in approach and expertise needed in dealing with goods and people, and the multitude of potential travel documents and sophisticated forgeries that have exacerbated the inspection challenges.

Several factors have contributed to the apparent lack of change at the borders and could impede the success of OFAB and of CBP. In one example, the limitations of the physical infrastructure at or approaching ports of entry pose significant challenges (the bridge and tunnel that connect Detroit, Michigan, and Windsor, Ontario, are approximately 75 years old), including little room for expansion (particularly when inspection booths can only be accessed from local roads that go through congested urban areas such as Tijuana).

In addition, the inspection facilities themselves were built according to specifications of the legacy agencies and cannot be easily or cheaply accommodated to policy shifts, such as a unified agency that requires integrated inspection areas.

Moreover, inadequate security-related information continues to be a problem, as One Face at the Border does not appear to have improved communication between ports of entry, furthered database integration, or increased the information available to inspectors.

This is not particularly surprising given that CBP inherited legacy data systems and their notorious problems; many other agencies within and outside of DHS face similar problems. Yet it is troubling, given the emphasis the 9/11 Commission placed on the importance of constraining terrorist travel as a crucial element of counterterrorism.

Lack of visible change also reflects the fact that CBP's effectiveness depends in part on the actions of a wide range of other players both within and outside the government, including facility operators, local governments, and private-sector companies. Traffic flows, intelligent transportation systems, infrastructure, geography, financial considerations, and governance issues also impact CBP's success.

Inspections are only one component of border management, and inspectors' success will be derived in large part from the effective deployment of integrated systems and the accuracy and timeliness of information in the system. CBP is only one piece of a very complex and interdependent puzzle of players, none of whose actions, on their own, may achieve desired outcomes.


The One Face at the Border initiative has been a constructive first step toward creating a single, unified, efficient, and professional border agency. However, the short timeline by which DHS and CBP had to become operational meant that little advance planning took place.

The resulting challenges must be addressed to ensure they do not undermine CBP's mission or its ability to perform that mission. After all, security vulnerabilities can result from inconsistencies and insufficient expertise, and organizational problems can result from limited transparency, poor employee morale, or unrealistic promises.

One Face at the Border, which has been primarily an organizational and management change, cannot enhance facilitation or security on its own. Nevertheless, CBP could still remedy many of the weaknesses and help OFAB reach its potential by leveraging expertise, delivering necessary training, deepening partnerships with employees and stakeholders, building a culture of transparency, engaging in strategic planning, and taking other measures to address known or potential weaknesses.

This article is based on the recently released report One Face at the Border: Behind the Slogan (June 2005). For the PDF version of this report, please click here.