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United front proposed to protect borders

The Bush administration is seriously considering a merger of the federal agencies responsible for protecting the nation's borders.

"There is an appetite to do that" and "there is a good possibility" that President Bush will propose it as part of January's budget, said Tom Ridge, the director of the White House Office of Homeland Security.

The head of the office charged with coordinating defenses against all forms of terrorism said it made little sense that "when you are coming across a border, you have five or six different folks, wearing different uniforms, and you have to run a gantlet."

"We would be a lot safer," Ridge said, "if we could not only fuse some of this capacity, but exchange some of the intelligence that these agencies now get."

Ridge's comments drew cheers from congressional sponsors of legislation that would merge the Border Patrol, the Customs Service and the Coast Guard. Ridge did not list the agencies that the administration is considering for reorganization, but presumably the list would be similar.

The Border Patrol is part of the Immigration and Naturalization Service of the Justice Department, Customs is in the Treasury Department, and the Coast Guard is in the Department of Transportation.

Meanwhile, Attorney General John Ashcroft announced a major restructuring of the Immigration and Naturalization Service on Wednesday and said it would help fight terrorism and speed up service.

The plan seeks to separate the two often-conflicting INS missions of keeping out foreigners who violate U.S. law and helping legal immigrants and visitors, he said.

Under the plan, a new Bureau of Immigration Enforcement will oversee issues involving intelligence, investigations and illegal aliens. The new Bureau of Immigration Services will process applications for naturalization, asylum, work permits and residency green-card renewals, and deal with other immigrant benefits questions.

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