Flagstaff Won't Give ICE Free Office Space at City Police Building

In a memo to the Flagstaff City Council,  City Manager Kevin Burke says he's decided against offering free office space at the police building to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement office:

At the May 26, 2009 Council Work Session we had a presentation and discussion regarding granting ICE free office space at the LEAF center. I want to stress, the issue on the table is not whether to permit ICE to open an office in Flagstaff or not. This is not our decision. ICE is a federal agency and can open an office wherever they desire. The question is, does the city of Flagstaff offer them free office space while they search for more permanent offices of their own. I don't believe that distinction was fully understood by the audience.

Moreover, the Deputy Special Agent in Charge (SAC) Troy Henely informed me prior to the meeting that they are looking to locate 4 agents and 1 staff support for an anticipated time frame of about 1 year. He further indicated that they were already looking for office space. So this is a temporary arrangement. This is also a distinction I don't think was fully vetted during the agenda item. It is also important to note that we have housed this division before during a special task force operation that lasted roughly six months.

As you know, Council was deadlocked in terms of their opinion of extending free office space to ICE on a temporary basis. Further, and I greatly appreciate this, Council recognized that this was an administrative decision that fell to the City Manager but a decision that has significant community implications in terms of perception and safety that needed additional input. With that in mind, here is my decision.

First, we all recognize that this issue has great emotion attached to it. I personally observed the use of fear tactics on both sides. ICE talks about the very fearful safety implications that come with narcotics, weapons, cash and human smuggling. I have no reason to doubt these are real effects, but certainly they were highlighting the most drastic aspects of their work. The audience, on the flip side, also engaged in generating fear by telling of stories of residents afraid to get food and children being torn from their parents or visa versa. Again, I have no reason to doubt these effects of deportation and other ICE operations; however, these also represent the most drastic effects. This is no different than any public policy debate. We tell the most impactful and extreme points of the policy decision to sway decision makers to our point of view. This is what occurred Tuesday night and no one side was the owner of that tactic. Therefore, I tend to believe the day-to-day reality is somewhere in the middle which is, smuggling of drugs, weapons, cash and humans does lead to violence and an impact on community safety. Conversely, ICE operations that search for illegal immigrants with an intent to deport them, will break up families and lead to a distrust of law enforcement by a significant sector of our community.

This last point opens another complicated factor in this decision. I believe the public, in general, does not make a distinction between the various branches of law enforcement, and certainly does not recognize the distinction of different divisions within ICE. Since November, we have constantly had to remind people that the Flagstaff Police Department was not associated with the ICE operations that arrested 16 individuals (14 with court orders. If many members of the community can't make that distinction, asking them to distinguish between the Office of Criminal Investigations of ICE and the Detention and Removal division of ICE will be extremely challenging. Again Deputy SAC Henely discussed that both divisions are located in Arizona, but have a totally different chain of command to the point of reporting to different people in Washington D.C. Whether people recognize this or not, this is a very acute separation of function. It would be like DEA and ATF. Both are divisions of the Department of Justice, but have totally different reporting structures. Do they work together? Of course. But the separate reporting structure within the same organization provides similar distinction to the issue at hand with ICE. So the separation between the Office of Investigations and the Office of Detention and Removal are real, but the perception will not be.

This lack of distinction leads to my next concern which is the request of accountability. Specifically, there is an expectation that the City will hold ICE to its word that they will focus on criminal investigations and not deportation related functions. I understand this desire, but as I think about how that accountability will work, we would be setting ourselves up for failure. ICE is a federal agency with no reporting requirements to the local jurisdiction. Moreover, what happens if the DRO unit conducts another operation in Flagstaff? This will clearly put the public information function squarely on the City to explain the operation and whether the unit in the LEAF building participated or not. As we have seen, the PIO function of ICE is extremely centralized and not always the most accessible. For the City Manager's Office or Police Department to have to speak for another agency's work in which we have no control and probably limited information, would be problematic.

Lastly, I have to ask myself, will we be safer with an ICE Office of Criminal Investigations in the LEAF building or not. First of all, I believe our community would absolutely be safer with an ICE Office of Criminal Investigation in Flagstaff. This is four more peace officers working on very dangerous and violent crimes. As a corporation devoted to public safety, we welcome this presence. However, co-locating this office in the LEAF building would impact some of our day-to-day public safety operations. If victims and witnesses of crimes are not coming to the LEAF building because they know ICE offices in the building, this is a problem. If they are not reporting the crimes to the Flagstaff Police Department because they think we are one-in-the-same due to a co-located office, this impacts our public safety. Based upon public participation at the work session, it sounds like some of this is already occurring without the co-located office. FPD is expending time and energy trying to rectify the false information and re-open lines of communication. Co-locating an office would likely set us back further in that effort.

So, for the reasons of: 1) inability of important members of the community to distinguish between the different divisions of ICE; 2) the inability for us to be accountable for the actions of a federal agency; and 3) the impact of day-to-day public safety associated with a co-located office, I will not offer the free office space to the Office of Investigations at the LEAF building, but do sincerely look forward to them having a presence in the City of Flagstaff.

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Ray Stern has worked as a newspaper reporter in Arizona for more than two decades. He's won numerous awards for his reporting, including the Arizona Press Club's Don Bolles Award for Investigative Journalism.