Meltdown

The Phoenix branch of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement bureau is Exhibit A of this country's failed border policies

Inside two months after the attacks, then-U.S. attorney general John Ashcroft called for the immigration agency's abolishment.

Four months after that, the INS pounded nails in its own coffin by approving visas for 9/11 ringleader Mohammed Atta and another hijacker.

As part of the creation of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, parts of the embattled INS and the 214-year-old U.S. Customs Service were smashed together to make ICE.

Imagine a police department, goes one analogy for understanding ICE, that has all of its plainclothes investigators separated from its uniformed officers and taken away to a separate department with different policies and leaders.

Before 9/11, the INS was composed of detectives, regulators, detention-and-removal staff, and the uniformed Border Patrol under the umbrella of the U.S. Department of Justice. The Customs service, which had been established in 1789 and also consisted of investigators and uniformed port-of-entry personnel, was under the Treasury Department.

After March 2003, the port-of-entry agents and the Border Patrol began working for the new U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency, while the plainclothes staff started working for ICE — all of it under Homeland Security.

Confused? So was ICE.

Theoretically, the new agency was supposed to do everything that INS and Customs investigators had been doing — busting illegal aliens, smuggling organizations and drug dealers — with a major emphasis on stopping the next 9/11 before it happens.

But paradoxes and clashes became the rule after the merger. Former INS personnel and ex-Customs agents tugged in opposite directions within ICE, while the agency as a whole transformed its mission with the political tide, going from wanna-be al-Qaeda fighters to a new, incompetent version of "la Migra."


On the morning of March 16, 2004, Thomas DeRouchey was driving to Tucson, where he had a meeting with Border Patrol officers.

The chain-smoking, 45-year-old workaholic from Atlanta had been living out of his suitcase since taking the job as ICE's first bureau chief in Phoenix nine months before.

He was scheduled to attend a press conference of nationwide importance that morning at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base. The feds were launching the Arizona Border Control Initiative, which officials said would bring "operational control" of Arizona's border with Mexico. (To state the obvious, it failed to do that.)

DeRouchey had packed his golf bag in the trunk of his white Chrysler Concorde; it appeared he was hoping for some R&R after the meetings.

But about 8:20, something must have changed DeRouchey's mind.

While driving at 75 miles per hour, he put his service handgun just above his Adam's apple and fired a .40-caliber bullet through his brain. His car spun around and glanced off guardrails before coming to rest in the median of Interstate 10 just north of Marana.

No one knows why DeRouchey killed himself; he left no note. But his frustration with ICE may have had something to do with it. Friends and family sure think so.

In the months before his death, DeRouchey became deeply concerned about the unproductive conflicts between the old INS and Customs agencies. He wasn't the only one.

Shoved together in the same office after the 2003 merger, INS employees complained that the more numerous Customs people — who were typically better educated and trained — were snooty and disdainful of immigration work.

Customs agents, on the other hand, said their INS partners had little interest in learning about the 600 or so laws Customs enforced. And they resented having to work closely with the Border Patrol and former INS, which they saw as incompetent and corrupt.

Sources describe the INS accounting system inherited by ICE as an unworkable mess, the old INS evidence-handling procedures almost nonexistent. Agents sometimes kept thousands of dollars or guns seized from crimes in their desk drawers.

The contempt for the former INS — and the fact that the ex-Customs personnel had more friends in Washington, D.C. — paved the way for the Customs people to dominate the immigration agency.

Of the original 26 special agents in charge of ICE nationwide, 24 came out of the old U.S. Customs service.

"That sent a message to all of the immigration people that 'you're dreck,'" says Neville Cramer, a Scottsdale resident and former INS agent. (He quit.)

Cramer, who self-published a book last year titled Fixing the INSanity, says the internal strife at the Valley ICE office was acute. Cramer says the Customs people thought immigration work was fruitless, not to mention beneath them.

At the end of the day, he says of the typical former INS employee, sometimes "all you [had was] your name in the newspaper saying you're xenophobic and a racist."

An exodus began of seasoned agents disgusted by what was happening.

The Arizona ICE office started with roughly 300 employees, including support and administrative staff, spread out in Phoenix (the biggest office), Tucson, and the border towns of Sells, Douglas and Nogales.

But most agents able to retire soon fled ICE. Others sought transfers out of the state or to other federal agencies. Some just quit, sometimes after many years with either INS or Customs.

One Phoenix agent who resigned in 2005, just a few years before he could have retired, says ICE was a bad joke: Only one in five agents could speak Spanish, leadership was poor, and the office's mission was unclear.

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