Meltdown

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

When the state needed help with a large-scale wiretap operation initiated by DPS in 2004 against a suspected smuggling gang (more than 10,000 phone conversations were ultimately recorded), ICE volunteered just two agents to help out: Andy Anderson and Rod McCauley.

Only one of them spoke fluent Spanish.

"ICE is so fortunate to have hardworking guys like them," Mason says. "But [those two were] the limitation of their resources."

And this was when the staff of the Phoenix ICE office had been doubled in size for "Operation ICE Storm," a temporary crackdown on smuggling gangs.

In one instance during the wiretap case, DPS officers listened in as suspects planned to send a load of Mexicans to Nevada. They pulled the van over on the highway, hoping to interview everyone inside.

"I was directed by an ICE agent to bring those UDAs [undocumented aliens] to the ICE office on Central," Mason says.

But when he and fellow agents got there with the cargo, the ICE supervisor on duty told him his office "wasn't a dumping ground for undocumented immigrants. And he opened up the back door . . . and [the illegal aliens] walked down Central Avenue."

Interviewing the suspects, he says, could have led to another big break in the case.

Oh, well.

Despite the minimal help from ICE, the DPS — along with Phoenix police and the state Attorney General's Office — turned the wiretap investigation into a major bust. Authorities indicted 28 people and seized 11 used car lots in Phoenix that had been used to provide smugglers with fleets of vehicles.

Mason says he has worked with ICE in Louisiana, California and New York, where he found the investigators, cooperation and level of service "phenomenal."

It's a different story in Arizona.

"The goings-on in the Phoenix [ICE] office are critical. They mean a lot to national security, mean a lot to our state," he says. "And there's no cooperation."

Another law enforcement source who has worked closely with ICE says he knows of other cases in which the federal immigration agency could have helped, but for inexplicable reasons did not.

"I've never seen a more fucked-up agency in my life," the source says. "If I had a Tomahawk missile to fire up ICE's ass, I'd do it."


ICE's main office is at the Arizona Center on Van Buren Street. At the Starbucks there, former ICE spokesman Russell Ahr talked recently about how excited he was to be retiring in a week. His wife was already in San Antonio, he said, overseeing the final construction of their custom home.

He knew he would be leaving behind plenty of problems at ICE.

"We have been whipsawed to the nth degree," Ahr contended, mindful of the criticism of ICE and departed Special Agent in Charge Roberto Medina.

Medina, who held the position from April 2005 until last month, was both the most stable leader ICE has had locally and a man who managed to destroy what was left of the goodwill between his agency and state and county authorities.

In an August 14 letter to Homeland Security Director Michael Chertoff, Governor Napolitano and Sheriff Joe Arpaio singled out Medina as hostile and "reluctant to share even basic information regarding apprehensions, border crossing deaths, drug confiscations statistics or the number of agents and man-hours available to combat the problem."

Napolitano sent out a press release to crow about the letter, clearly eager to convince the public that she was doing something about illegal immigration as the recent general election loomed. The controversy also helped Joe Arpaio get more of the publicity he craves.

But the criticism of ICE was indeed warranted.

The agency's performance in the Valley and its relations with the state were already poor when Medina took over. The DPS lockout incident came three months later.

Many of the problems between ICE and local authorities stem from the federal agency's failure to help much when police encounter suspected illegal immigrants.

Stories abound of ICE agents refusing to aid in the identification and apprehension of groups of suspected illegal immigrants — especially after regular office hours.

In one notable case in 2004, one lone ICE agent came out after DPS officers stopped two vans full of suspected illegal immigrants about 3 a.m. The ICE agent arbitrarily put 18 of them in his own van (all the vehicle would hold); they were later found to be in the country illegally.

As a TV news crew rolled tape, 24 of the other suspects walked down the Loop 202 to freedom, without even being identified to find out if any known smugglers — or rapists or murderers, for that matter — were part of the group.

Sergeant Joel Tranter, a Phoenix police spokesman, says ICE has gotten somewhat better about responding to calls from city cops. Agents failed to respond only 14 times so far this year out of 76 requests for help by Phoenix police — a big improvement over past years, he says. Whether ICE sent out any more than one agent per call, no matter how many suspected illegals were involved, couldn't be determined.

But the main point is, the federal agency set up to attack the illegal immigration problem still isn't responding 100 percent of the time. And because of that, Phoenix police must rely on the Border Patrol, which has no offices in the Valley but a few agents working out of airports and bus stations. The Border Patrol responded to half the calls that ICE ignored, Tranter says.

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