John Morton's Arizona ICE Raids: Did He Put the Public and Officers at Risk?

ICE head John Morton, during a press conference at the U.S. Attorney's office in Phoenix
ICE head John Morton, during a press conference at the U.S. Attorney's office in Phoenix

Today, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, with the help of numerous other law enforcement agencies, arrested 47 suspects and 17 non-criminal aliens while taking down a human smuggling ring that operated mostly in central and southern Arizona.

ICE is touting "Operation In Plain Sight" as "the most comprehensive human smuggling investigation in history," involving more than 800 law enforcement agents from ten different agencies, including the Phoenix Police Department, the U.S. Marshal's Service, and the U.S. Border Patrol.

Shuttle companies in Tucson and Phoenix allegedly routed their human cargo from the border to Phoenix and then beyond. The smugglers charged several hundred to thousands of dollars per alien, with payments being received via wire services like Western Union, according to the indictments.

Top ICE honcho John Morton appeared at a press conference today at the offices of U.S. Attorney Dennis Burke to detail the results of the year-long ICE investigation. Appearing with Burke and Morton were U.S. Marshal David Gonzales, Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard, and Phoenix Public Safety Manager (aka, police chief) Jack Harris. 

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While such an operation is laudatory in dismantling an element of organized crime, I had to wonder at both the timing of the operation, coming so shortly after the passage in the Arizona House of state Senator Russell Pearce's anti-immigrant bill SB 1070, and the fact that about a half dozen national news outlets were tipped off days in advance to the raids so they could be present for today's media event.

Planning a press conference prior to the execution of an operation like this smacks of the sort of tactics Sheriff Joe Arpaio normally employs. Interestingly, the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office was not included in the day's activities. U.S. Attorney Burke shrugged off an inquiry as to why the MCSO was not invited along for the ride.

"We used the resources that we had," Burke replied, nonchalantly, when I asked him this toward the close of the presser.

Not that I actually believed he would invite a man to the table that is the subject of a federal grand jury investigation, as Arpaio currently is. But the MCSO's absence was notable. Perhaps Joe was dis-invited.

Earlier I queried Morton about whether he'd given a heads up to national media to ensure their attendance. I asked him if in doing so he had possibly jeopardized the lives of law enforcement officers and the public.

He replied with a solid non-denial.

"I'm not going to have any comment on the media relations of ICE or any other agency involved in this," stated Morton. "Other than to say that the results speak pretty much for themselves today. We have identified and arrested all of our major targets. We've had a very successful day."

That's lucky for Morton and his agents as details of this operation were being bandied about heavily at least as recently as two days ago via e-mails and phone calls. (I learned of the raids through such scuttlebutt.) Morton's boat was leaking like a sieve, and it's my understanding that some of the agents involved were not happy about this state of affairs.

Asked about the timing of the raids by another reporter, both Burke and Morton hotly denied that the take down had any connection to local political events, such as the passage of Pearce's bill.

"There's just no truth," said Morton,"that, particularly this investigation, or the prosecution was timed by anything other than the merits of a very long criminal investigation. Period."

I tend to accept this, as the Pearce bill was in play right up until the vote on Tuesday afternoon, and the major media outlets I mention above had already been notified of the pending raid, with the information embargoed until this morning.

However, the fact that the information leaked to pro-immigrant activists nationwide set that community's paranoia engine into overdrive.

Burke declined to comment on SB 1070, but Morton weighed in to some degree.

"I'm not going to comment on a future bill," Morton stated, "or a legislative debate here in Arizona. But I'll tell you this, that debate reflects the need for comprehensive immigration reform in the United States, and we're a big supporter of comprehensive immigration reform."

As for the 17 non-criminal aliens taken into custody, Morton said those individuals were being handled as any persons apprehended crossing the border illegally would be. He claimed some had already been "paroled" so they could be witnesses for the U.S. Attorney in these cases.

Outside the U.S. Attorney's office, about 20 demonstrators protested the raids. I spoke to Jim Perdue of the Desert Southwest Conference of the United Methodist Church, who told me their concerns were mainly with ICE's leak to the press, which caused some distress in the immigrant community, and with the concern that the investigation may have spilled over into arresting undocumented persons unassociated with the criminal enterprise.

"As long as [the operation] stays on mandate, I think we're OK," he said, "because we all want to get rid of the bad people. Our concern is, why do we need to terrorize the people who are here just looking for work?" 


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