Meltdown

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

Compounding the attrition rate, ICE was under a hiring freeze in parts of 2004 and 2005. Use of the imprecise, old INS accounting system led to a financial shortfall of hundreds of millions of dollars nationwide.

One result was that Phoenix got stuck with a ridiculously small staff.

One current ICE agent formerly of Customs described his frustration with working in the Phoenix office.

"Nobody wants to deal with illegal immigration, so they try to dump it all on us," says the agent, who, like many other sources in this story, spoke only on condition of anonymity. "We become bus drivers for the police department."

When ICE agents work their hardest, it's usually busywork, the agent says. Proactive investigations get tossed aside as experienced detectives spend days processing the hordes of immigrants found by local police.

Drop houses, where immigrants wait for money to change hands and rides to other parts of the country to be arranged, are sometimes found every other day in Phoenix. Other groups are found in vehicles on streets and highways.

When local police call ICE with a large group (20 to 30) of suspected illegals, the agency usually responds.

But dealing with 100 people packed like herring in an unfurnished two-bedroom house is not like finding 100 pounds of cocaine in the same house.

Each immigrant must be searched, photographed, fingerprinted, interviewed, fed, housed, given medical attention if necessary and ultimately deported.

Detectives, who would rather be interrogating a suspected money-launderer or kicking in the doors of a drug dealer's home, find it a mindless chore.

The current agent complained that the government spent tens of thousands of dollars on his training and that he makes close to $100,000 a year, all to be part of, he spat, "the new immigration service."

The disgruntled atmosphere in Phoenix troubled DeRouchey in the months before his suicide, his friends and family say.

A former INS agent, DeRouchey was a devout believer in the immigration agency's mission. He knew smuggling organizations were becoming more ruthless and powerful as the number of illegal immigrants soared despite heightened border control measures.

But he couldn't get much help at the Phoenix office, either from above or below.

Internal politics, ambitious ladder-climbing and backstabbing were the norm. Many agents were inexperienced and lazy. Soon after his arrival, DeRouchey complained to retired ICE agent Bill Griffin of Flagstaff about the office's work ethic.

"Agents are sitting at their desks — [when] these guys are getting paid to arrest people," Griffin quoted DeRouchey as saying.

That the agents thought they had better things to do was irrelevant. Times had changed, and the agents now assigned to ICE had a different mission. Besides, they were still cashing the big paychecks. What most of them weren't still doing in the new agency was their jobs.


Sources say the morale problem at the Phoenix ICE office has turned agents into some of the biggest goldbrickers in law enforcement.

One former Phoenix agent says some of his co-workers would stay home and play their XBoxes, rib each other for failing to come to the office in the morning and get away with doing the minimal amount of work after they did show up. Desk-jockey supervisors, he says, would look the other way while criminal immigrants ran amok.

The agent says a common saying around the Phoenix office was: "Big cases, big problems; medium cases, medium problems; no cases, no problems."

Former Customs agent Lee Morgan blames the INS culture for the malaise.

An honored law officer, Vietnam veteran and author, Morgan is "one of the best agents Customs ever had," according to former ICE spokesman Russell Ahr.

Morgan is also one of ICE's most outspoken critics.

"The whole thing is a sham," he says.

After ICE formed, it became apparent the INS folks were a bunch of slackers, he says.

A meeting was held at the Tucson ICE office to ask the former INS people to consider working later in the day.

"An INS guy said, 'We don't do that, we don't work after five o'clock, and we don't work weekends,'" Morgan says.

Having spent some of his 36-year career in the INS, Morgan knew it was true.

"We had adopted the failed practices and policies of an abolished agency," says Morgan, who retired in 2005.

Tim Mason, a DPS officer and money-laundering expert who has been involved in more than 200 smuggling investigations, worked on ICE's financial crimes task force for more than two years before he was booted out with the rest of the DPS team members.

During the time he spent in the ICE office, Mason says, he would look around the room and see few, if any, ICE agents who seemed to be doing anything. He says he would wonder if they were running down big leads behind the scenes, developing intelligence on smuggling kingpins. Or were they just watching the clock?

"I was fortunate enough to be given some serious standing in my investigations, and I attended meetings with high-level officials within ICE and the Department of Public Safety and Attorney General's Office," Mason says. "Those questions were never answered. To this day, I don't know."

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