Meltdown

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

Local police have little choice but to rely on the feds to help deal with foreigners. Street-level cops, for many reasons, aren't supposed to act like immigration agents.

But the main reason they can't is that only the feds have the power to properly identify foreigners. State and local police can't access the computer databases that hold the names and personal data of tens of millions of foreigners who have had some contact with immigration officials.

It can't be stressed more, sources say, that it's the federal immigration agency's job to help the locals.

But ICE doesn't want to be anyone's tool.

At the time of Napolitano's letter, ICE was declining to deport dozens of people convicted under an interpretation of the state's 2005 human smuggling law. Using a volunteer posse and armed with a legal opinion by Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas that illegal immigrants could be charged with conspiring to smuggle themselves into the country, the sheriff's office combed the county's southern desert areas and rounded up about 200 suspects.

Once again, ICE didn't like how the locals were doing their job for them, and they refused to deport the illegals.

ICE's official stance was that it couldn't take custody of the immigrants because of complex legal issues. Yet when Arpaio had deputies drive the illegal immigrants to Yuma, the Border Patrol had no problem taking them into custody and deporting them.

A month after Napolitano's letter, ICE suddenly reversed course and said it would drive illegals arrested by local authorities to the border.

No new laws had passed, no policies rewritten.

What happened was, officials in Washington, D.C., called Phil Crawford — the head of ICE's Detention and Removal office who reports directly to Washington — and told him to order his agents to start taking the convicts to Mexico, former spokesman Ahr admits.

ICE Chief Medina, it appears, just couldn't stomach the idea of bending over for the local yokels.

Ostensibly, Medina figured that since none of the detainees had any other criminal record, deporting them was a waste of time — and perhaps it was.

But it was still ICE's job.

Medina — a former Customs agent whom sources describe as a boastful disciplinarian — also put the kibosh on ICE's involvement in cases that arose from the state's program of seizing money transmitted by illegal aliens through companies like Western Union.

The program frequently uncovers evidence of smuggling rings, but ICE won't team up with the state to bust them.

When the program leads police to a drop house or vehicle packed with immigrants, ICE usually doesn't come out.

And as late as early November, ICE was refusing to give the DPS copies of a standard form, similar to a booking sheet, used for captured illegal immigrants. Even though ICE knows the detention form copies would help local authorities build criminal cases against certain immigrants, they have stubbornly withheld them, says Tim Mason, the DPS detective.

Mason says he believes one reason the feds give the locals short shrift on certain cases is that seized money and property goes to the state.

When DPS worked with the ICE task force, part of Mason's job was to enter money and property seizures in ICE's computers.

"When Washington saw what was occurring and noted that what we were seizing wasn't in their coffer," Mason says, "they came out, did an audit and sat down with us and said, 'Where's all the money, where's all the cars?' I said, 'Well, over at DPS.' I was told by [ICE] management that because they had no way to account for the vehicles and the money, Washington had a lot of heartache with what was occurring in the seizure world within the unit."

ICE doesn't just wrangle with state and local authorities. Though FBI spokeswoman Deborah McCarley claims her agency gets along swimmingly with its federal partner, that hardly seems the case. The two agencies have been engaged in a battle over counterterrorism cases since ICE formed. So far, the FBI has won out.

ICE has to check in with the FBI on every terrorism lead it comes across, but the FBI has no such rule.

ICE is a member of the state's Joint Terrorism Task Force, one of 46 such groups in the country, but how much involvement it has cannot be verified. The FBI would not release details of how the Arizona task force's personnel are distributed.

A Homeland Security report last year ripped ICE's participation in the state task forces.

"At almost every field site visited . . . ICE employees raised ICE managerial issues that they believed affected their efficiency or effectiveness on the task force," the report states.

FBI spokeswoman McCarley would only say ICE is "heavily involved" with the state's JTTF and that ICE was a "100 percent partner."

Asked to be more specific (that is, provide a few details), McCarley replied stiffly, "It's very specific."

No matter how angrily they disagree, federal agencies tend to stick together when asked for official comment.

But here's how ICE's participation in the JTTF shakes out.

At the Arizona Counter Terrorism Intelligence Center in Phoenix, where the JTTF is based, members from different law enforcement agencies work in squads supervised by FBI agents. All except ICE.

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