Homeland Security stiffing agents on foreign-language pay, leaked email shows

During a recent speech in Ohio in front of a crowd of Republican stalwarts, Vice President Dick Cheney said the following, according to the Associated Press:

The biggest threat we face now as a nation is the possibility of terrorists ending up in the middle of one of our cities with deadlier weapons than have ever before been used against us -- biological agents or a nuclear weapon or a chemical weapon of some kind to be able to threaten the lives of hundreds of thousands of Americans.

If indeed the United States faces such a threat, we better hope the terrorists don’t speak a foreign language.

According to email correspondence leaked to Narco News, the Department of Homeland Security’s main investigative arm, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), suspended all foreign-language pay for its agents for fiscal year 2004, which ended Sept. 30. In addition, due to budget constraints, Homeland Security (DHS) has not ruled doing the same in the coming fiscal year, according to Russ Knocke, director of public affairs for ICE. The following emails from ICE’s New York operations were provided to Narco News by sources. (The names of the individuals mentioned in the email correspondence have been omitted to protect their identities):

Subject: Language pay issues
Author: REDACTED at SAC-New York
Date: 9/30/04

Dear REDACTED (a high-level manager)

As per our conversation this morning, attached are the names of the agents in each office affected by the language pay issue.

The agents usually get their language pay in March. This year, they did not receive it. They were told by various sources that the pay was not allocated in the budget.

During the Undercover Conference in CITY REDACTED, (ICE Assistant Secretary Michael) Garcia was asked by an ASAC (a supervisor) from Houston, what was being done about the language pay issue. Mr. Garcia stated that he had recently sent a message via daily news announcing that ICE Managers had the option to provide their employees with time-off awards up to five [5] working days.

The agents understand that there is no money in the budget and would like to explore the option of time-off.

The agents have expressed to me that “something is better than nothing at all.”

Thank you for taking time and meeting with me and especially for addressing this issue.

Respectfully,

AGENT’S NAME REDACTED

In response to the agent’s query, the ICE manager sent the following e-mail:

To: REDACTED
From: REDACTED
Date: 10/06/2004
Subject: Re: Language pay issues

NAME REDACTED, after consideration and discussion with other senior management personnel here in SAC/NY (ICE headquarters in New York), I have decided not to grant time-off in lieu of the inability to pay “language pay.” This was not an easy decision as I respect the hours worked and dedication of these employees.

What it comes down to, is attempting to balance the office’s inability to reward many outstanding efforts this year versus our continued and increasing inventory of work. At this point it becomes counter-productive to give personnel time-off as we ask them and their fellow agents to do more and more. I wish there was a better answer and I hope that we will receive funds this FY (fiscal year) to recognize the efforts and “extra” efforts of our dedicated staff. Feel free to share this response with anyone you deem appropriate.

“How does this make us safer?” asks Ron Schmidt, a Washington, D.C.-based attorney who is representing Hispanic ICE agents in class-action discrimination and language-pay litigation.

Schmidt points out that it is not only Spanish-speaking agents who are affected by the hold on language pay, “but also agents who speak any other language.”  By not compensating agents for their foreign-language skills, Schmidt contends the government is sending them the message that it does not value those skills, which are essential to this nation’s counterterrorism efforts.

ICE’s Knocke confirms that not only language pay, but cash awards in general, were withheld in fiscal year 2004.

“There is no question we had some budget issues we had to deal with,” he adds.

Knocke explains that getting the recently created DHS off the ground was an immense undertaking because it involved merging multiple federal bureaucracies into a single new super-department.

As a result, he says “mapping” out the budget to ensure the right dollars “catch up with the appropriate offices” within the new department was a “very complex process and will continue over the next year.”

“We are still evaluating the fiscal year 2005 budget, with respect to things like language pay and cash awards, to determine whether they will be available,” Knocke says.

He stresses, however, that ICE’s leadership has gone to great lengths to be “direct with employees” about the process “to let people know where were at.”

“General morale is strong, and we’d like for it to be stronger,” Knocke says. “… There is a strong sense of pride and professionalism among our employees.”

Schmidt, though, is not convinced by the press spin being put out by ICE.

“The email says they have not appropriated language pay,” he says. “Ask them if they paid the SES (ICE senior executive) bonuses this year, because that is discretionary.”

When confronted with that question, Knocke replied: “I can’t say categorically across the board that all cash awards were not made.”

Schmidt also takes issue with Knocke on the morale issue. He says litigation now pending in federal court is proof that a number of ICE agents are disheartened over the language-pay issue. As part of that class-action litigation, a group of Hispanic ICE agents claim that their agency has systematically denied them fair reimbursement for their Spanish-language skills.

In recent pleadings in the case, Schmidt argues that even when second-language pay has been granted to agents in the past, they were not given “credit for weekend, overtime and partial hours in violation of the enabling statutes ….”

DHS, for its part, is seeking to have the case dismissed.

Schmidt contends that the lawsuit and the recent flap over language play is evidence that DHS “does not value what bilingual agents do.”

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