Friday, June 18, 2004 - House votes to halt immigration services competition (6/18/04) - House votes to halt immigration services competition (6/18/04)

House votes to halt immigration services competition
By Amelia Gruber

Lawmakers on Friday took the first step toward halting a competitive sourcing study encompassing more than 1,100 immigration services jobs.

The House added language to the fiscal 2005 Homeland Security Department appropriations bill blocking funds for the Citizenship and Immigration Services bureau to consider outsourcing immigration information officer, contact representative and investigative assistant jobs. These should be classified as inherently governmental on Federal Activities Inventory Reform Act lists and therefore shielded from public-private competition, according to proponents of the language, offered by Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard, D-Calif.

Immigration information officers go through years of training and employ substantial judgment on the job, said several House Democrats offering floor statements in support of Roybal-Allard's amendment. Federal employees subject to the competitive sourcing study screen immigration applications and adjudicate benefits disputes, in addition to answering basic questions.

"I can think of no more public function . . . than exercising the constitutional responsibility of controlling our borders," said Rep. Robert Andrews, D-N.J. "And the idea that this function would be delegated to someone who works for a for-profit firm strikes me as well beyond reason."

The General Accounting Office has been unable to confirm that competitive sourcing has produced the levels of taxpayer savings claimed by the Office of Management and Budget, said Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee, D-Texas, during the floor debate. "There is no documentation that we can save money, but there is documentation that if we privatize this, we have no oversight," she said.

But during debate, Rep. Harold Rogers, R-Ky., called Roybal-Allard's measure "unnecessary," saying he thinks the Homeland Security Department needs leeway to reduce a backlog of immigration cases, using all available tools.

The amendment passed by a vote of 242 to 163.

Friday's heated debate turned on a job competition announced by CIS in August 2003. The agency, part of the Homeland Security Department, originally planned to complete the study by the end of this month, but has pushed back the estimated decision date. CIS plans on issuing a solicitation on June 28 and accepting proposals through Sept. 8, 2004.

From the beginning, the competition engendered controversy. Union officials and a handful of Democratic senators have long argued that the more than 1,100 positions under study are inherently governmental. "We know that this is only the first step toward stopping this extremely ill-advised privatization effort," said John Gage, president of the American Federation of Government Employees. "We look forward to establishing another bipartisan coalition in the Senate to secure the inclusion of this language in the other chamber's version of the [bill]."

Though CIS officials announced the public-private competition late last summer, the decision to classify the positions as commercial under FAIR Act inventories dates back to 2001, well before March 2003 when the jobs, formerly part of the Justice Department's Immigration and Naturalization Service, transferred to CIS.

An analysis of Justice Department documents indicates that officials there classified the jobs as inherently governmental in a last-minute attempt to satisfy Office of Management and Budget officials, four Senate Democrats said in a Tuesday letter to DHS Secretary Tom Ridge. At the time, OMB had set a governmentwide target for the number of federal jobs agencies should open to competition from contractors.

Later correspondence indicates that during the preliminary planning, CIS officials asked Homeland Security Department leadership for permission to delay the contest, Sens. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., and Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., said in the June 15 letter. Outside consultants had advised CIS against conducting the study, arguing that plans for the study were "structured poorly."

Customs and Immigration Services also lacked the staff to adequately conduct the competition, the letter said. But DHS denied the request to halt the contest. "Evidence indicates that their focus may instead have been at least partly on achieving [OMB's] numerical governmentwide quotas," the letter stated.

The senators' findings indicate that OMB's governmentwide competitive sourcing target, officially dropped last summer, is "alive and well," Gage said.

But Valerie Smith, a DHS spokeswoman, said the department decided to move forward with the competition only after discussion with "all appropriate entities." The department thoroughly reviewed Justice's decision to classify the positions as commercial in nature, she said.


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