The US Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE) has announced its intention to stop using the BlackBerry, switching its employees to Apple’s iPhone instead. The move marks the end of an eight-year contract with BlackBerry maker Research In Motion (RIM). ICE is the latest in a growing number of agencies and companies deserting the once mighty handset maker for iOS or Android devices.

An ICE document picked up by Reuters announcing the decision said that 17,676 employees would be given a new iPhone at a total cost of $2.1 million.

The document [pdf] outlines the agency’s reasons for making the move and will be an uncomfortable read for RIM CEO Thorsten Heins and his team.

It says that while the BlackBerry has served ICE in an efficient manner over recent years, “RIM technology….can no longer meet the mobile technology needs of the agency.”

It adds that “Apple’s strict control of the hardware platform and operating system, independent of telecommunication vendor, provides ICE with the greatest degree of control and management to ensure the most reliable delivery of services to ICE’s mission users.”

The document said that in recent years both Apple and Google had “leapfrogged all other competitors” in terms of the technical and functional capabilities offered by smartphones.

Once lauded for their superior security and device-management features, BlackBerry handsets have in recent times fallen out of favor with a number of government agencies and businesses.

In an emailed statement, RIM vice president of government solutions Paul Lucier said, “Of course, we are disappointed by this decision. We are working hard to make [sure] our new mobile computing platform, BlackBerry 10, meets the future needs of government customers.”

The company’s new BB10 OS and next-generation handsets are set to appear in the first few months of next year. But it’s hard to believe that agencies and businesses which have ditched the BlackBerry will return any time soon.

RIM’s handsets may still be selling well in emerging markets, but in North America its business has lost out big time to Apple’s iPhone and Android-powered devices.

A failure to innovate in recent years, together with a series of damaging mis-steps in the last 12 months, have all contributed to the company’s decline.