By Devlin Barrett and Eileen Sullivan
WASHINGTON — U.S. immigration agents soon will get expanded powers to fight Mexican drug cartels, Attorney General Eric Holder told Congress on Wednesday.
Under a new deal aimed at settling a long-running turf dispute with the Drug Enforcement Administration, more agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement would get authority to investigate drug cases.
When Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., asked the attorney general about the issue, Holder said an announcement was imminent on a new agreement between the Justice Department and the Department of Homeland Security. Holder said he had discussed the matter the night before with Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano.
"I think we're in a position to announce that we have reached an agreement that is going to be announced within days," the attorney general said.
Currently, only some ICE agents have that authority. The agency has tried for years to expand that number in negotiations with the drug enforcement agency. The most recent agreement was in 1994, according to a March report by the Government Accountability Office.
Since then, there have been constant disputes over what authority the agreement gives ICE agents. The current agreement allows for 1,475 of more than 6,000 ICE agents to have these investigative authorities at one time, but ICE officials contend that is not enough.
ICE spokeswoman Kelly Nantel said the department was working on an agreement with DOJ, but she would not elaborate.
Schumer praised the upcoming announcement as a positive step in fighting drug cartels.
"Right now, we have at least three separate agencies, all with different missions, trying to handle border enforcement," Schumer said. "The cartels that smuggle drugs and illegal immigrants have integrated their activities, and now the federal agencies will have a better integrated response."
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