The lowest point in the relationship between federal immigration agents and Arizona state troopers was the changing of locks and the can of tuna fish.

The incident began last year after Dan Kelly, a civilian investigator for the Arizona Department of Public Safety, learned that Phoenix resident Carmen Tolle had received two suspicious batches of money from Western Union, both of which had been frozen by state officials in a program targeting smugglers of illegal immigrants.

On a day in late April 2005, Kelly sat down at a computer terminal in a nondescript Scottsdale office previously used by a penis-enlargement-pill firm and rented by the local branch of the U.S. Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. At the time, state troopers were using the building to work with ICE on financial crimes.

Kelly punched Tolle's name into the federal database.

Bingo. It turned out the feds knew of Tolle through an informant and suspected her of selling bogus documents and smuggling immigrants. ICE had closed the case recently and referred it to the Phoenix Police Department.

About a week later, troopers used their information to persuade a judge to issue a search warrant for Tolle's home at 8814 West Monterey Way.

The bust went well, ultimately leading to the convictions of Tolle and her associates, plus a state prison guard, for scamming about 500 immigrants who thought they were paying for real green cards.

But ICE agents — finally awake to the idea that Tolle might have been a good lead to follow after all — were embarrassed and furious by the raid. A few days later, ICE agent Carolyn Mangum "seemed very upset" on the phone with another DPS investigator, saying the immigration office had wanted to investigate Tolle but now could not, a DPS report states.

ICE hadn't done a thing about Tolle before the troopers took the reins, but the feds don't like it when locals step on their turf. Tension between the two agencies had been building for two years, and for ICE, the Carmen Tolle case crossed a line.

A couple of weeks after the bust, DPS detectives returned to the Scottsdale office after lunch and found a locksmith changing the locks on the doors.

The man told the state troopers brusquely that, no, they could not have the new key. When they complained to ICE supervisors, the troopers were allowed back in — to pack up.

The DPS detectives worked until midnight moving boxes of equipment and files from Scottsdale to the department's Phoenix headquarters at 21st Avenue and Encanto Boulevard.

A few days later, ICE pulled out of the state's High-Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas task force. The federal agency had been sponsoring the task force's operational expenses and supplying the occasional agent to help out — which makes sense considering the frequent connections between large-scale drug cases and illegal immigrants.

ICE was suddenly more useless than ever to the state.

When asked about the reason behind the lockout, Russell Ahr, ICE spokesman in Phoenix until he retired October 13, accused the DPS investigator of misusing the computer to get the information that led to the Tolle warrant.

"He did not have a security clearance to do that," Ahr says.

But if that's true, ICE never attempted to have Kelly prosecuted for unauthorized use of a government computer, which is a crime.

In any case, it wasn't like Kelly was using ICE's computer to locate an ex-lover or shop on eBay. As a member of the task force, Kelly had performed a bit of electronic sleuthing that put fraudsters in prison, rooted out a corrupt correctional officer and saved illegal immigrants from being fleeced. For that, ICE wanted Kelly kicked off the task force.

But DPS refused to punish the investigator for producing results.

Ahr says ICE had no choice but to change the locks "to keep this guy out."

Not long after the state lawmen cleared out of the office, ICE agents opened the drawer of a desk the troopers had been using.

Inside was a can of tuna fish. Without the lid on it.

According to Ahr, the DPS people obviously had left the gift, no doubt hoping it would be discovered only after it stunk up the office.

Ahr says the can was accompanied by a note: "Fuck you."

ICE no longer uses the penis-pill office.

But state troopers aren't welcome to work at any other ICE office, either. As far as DPS is concerned, the agency's doors are locked.

The population of illegal immigrants in the United States grows by about 350,000 a year.

Most find jobs, a home and security in this country precisely because ICE — the nation's immigration agency — is so reflective of America's paralysis and confusion on immigration issues.

The new agency is the government's answer to the two biggest political issues in the country: terrorism and illegal immigration.

And by most accounts, it's a disaster.

Formed three years ago as the main law enforcement arm of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, ICE still doesn't know what it wants to be when it grows up.

Early on, the agency didn't even want the word "immigration" in its name and began calling itself the Bureau of Investigation and Customs Enforcement. It went back to the original name after the FBI complained that there was room in this country for only one "Bureau of Investigation."

But whatever it calls itself, ICE simply doesn't work.

It has too many competing priorities, too many clashes both within itself and with other agencies, and far too few employees to do its job correctly. Then there's the bad morale, the overly complex way of doing things, the weak leadership. Even supporters admit it may take a decade or longer to iron out the kinks — at a time when illegal immigration is at the top of the agenda of every major politician in Arizona and much of the rest of the nation.

Of all the 26 "special agent in charge" offices nationwide, the Phoenix-based Arizona ICE office is arguably the most important.

It also happens to be the most screwed up.

Arizona is the gateway to the United States for most illicit border crossers, especially since crackdowns in the 1990s slowed immigrant smuggling in California and Texas.

Phoenix is considered the nation's hub of illegal immigrant traffic to other parts of the country. Each day, hundreds of illegal immigrants — mostly Mexicans — pass through metropolitan Phoenix with the help of sophisticated smuggling syndicates. Tens of thousands of illegals also call the Valley home.

You rarely saw a campaign ad during the recent political season that didn't feature what that candidate was supposedly doing about illegal immigration, and why his opponent was not measuring up. It's an understatement to say that Arizonans have been putting intense pressure on their leaders to do something about the problem.

The federal government's response to illegal immigration in Arizona — the virtual gateway into the United States for illegal aliens — is to man the Phoenix ICE office with about 60 agents, roughly the same number found in the agency's Honolulu or Denver bureaus.

In addition to the chronic understaffing, the Phoenix ICE office has never had a stable rudder.

In 2004, its first special agent in charge shot himself in the head while driving on Interstate 10 to a press conference. More on that later.

Since then, ICE hasn't been able to keep a chief in the Phoenix hot seat for very long.

Its sixth, Alonzo Peña, just started in mid-October. But the Texan may not be planning on staying long; his wife will continue to live in San Antonio, according to Governor Janet Napolitano's office.

No other ICE office has had such changes in leadership, a situation that has affected both the internal workings at ICE and its relationships with agencies like DPS negatively.

Perhaps worst of all, the total effect of ICE's problems in Phoenix has spawned a cancerous, do-nothing mentality among its workers.

The agency's frequent failure to help with immigration-related crimes is often borne of indifference or laziness, local authorities say.

Agents are so demoralized, so unmotivated to solve crime, that some of ICE's best potential investigations never get off the ground because its own intelligence is ignored.

The attitude shows in ICE's record.

Unless the agency is hiding any stellar accomplishments from the press, the Valley's crack ICE team can only take credit for two major busts since it was formed: the dismantling of one large-scale people-smuggling operation in Phoenix, resulting in the indictment of nearly 100 people; and the arrests of a few Mesa motel owners on charges of harboring illegal immigrants.

No human-trafficking cases, no major drug syndicates exposed, no counterterrorism arrests.

Other agencies in the state have picked up the slack.

A Mexican drug ring that sold heroin and other drugs to Scottsdale teens was busted by the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office.

The seizure of millions of dollars sent to and from Arizona by immigrant smugglers was handled by the Arizona Attorney General's Office and DPS.

An Iranian smuggling dozens of his countrymen into Arizona from Mexico was the FBI's case.

Closer to the border, ICE also has little to brag about.

An October 30 bust of a suspected immigrant smuggling gang based in Bowie was initiated by the Cochise County Sheriff's Office and the U.S. Border Patrol.

The lead agency in that investigation was the FBI, not the agency that's the federal government's answer to the illegal immigration problem.

Mistrust of ICE isn't limited to state entities like DPS. A government audit last year found that the Border Patrol was passing more and more tips to the FBI, DEA or even local police instead of ICE.

State officials cite ICE's lackluster performance as the reason Arizona stepped in to tackle immigration enforcement. For example, creation last year of the state's human-smuggling law — which has resulted in arrests and would-be prosecutions of run-of-the-mill illegals on charges of conspiring to smuggle themselves — was a direct result of ICE's ineptitude.

"We had to fill the vacuum left by ICE," says Dennis Burke, Governor Napolitano's chief of staff for policy.

The old Immigration and Naturalization Service was one of the casualties of the 9/11 attacks.

All 19 of the hijackers who rammed planes into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania were foreigners, making the INS an easy target for blame-throwers.

Thirteen of the terrorists had entered legally, while the INS had no records on the other six. Three had overstayed their visitor visas.

Inside two months after the attacks, then-U.S. attorney general John Ashcroft called for the immigration agency's abolishment.

Four months after that, the INS pounded nails in its own coffin by approving visas for 9/11 ringleader Mohammed Atta and another hijacker.

As part of the creation of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, parts of the embattled INS and the 214-year-old U.S. Customs Service were smashed together to make ICE.

Imagine a police department, goes one analogy for understanding ICE, that has all of its plainclothes investigators separated from its uniformed officers and taken away to a separate department with different policies and leaders.

Before 9/11, the INS was composed of detectives, regulators, detention-and-removal staff, and the uniformed Border Patrol under the umbrella of the U.S. Department of Justice. The Customs service, which had been established in 1789 and also consisted of investigators and uniformed port-of-entry personnel, was under the Treasury Department.

After March 2003, the port-of-entry agents and the Border Patrol began working for the new U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency, while the plainclothes staff started working for ICE — all of it under Homeland Security.

Confused? So was ICE.

Theoretically, the new agency was supposed to do everything that INS and Customs investigators had been doing — busting illegal aliens, smuggling organizations and drug dealers — with a major emphasis on stopping the next 9/11 before it happens.

But paradoxes and clashes became the rule after the merger. Former INS personnel and ex-Customs agents tugged in opposite directions within ICE, while the agency as a whole transformed its mission with the political tide, going from wanna-be al-Qaeda fighters to a new, incompetent version of "la Migra."

On the morning of March 16, 2004, Thomas DeRouchey was driving to Tucson, where he had a meeting with Border Patrol officers.

The chain-smoking, 45-year-old workaholic from Atlanta had been living out of his suitcase since taking the job as ICE's first bureau chief in Phoenix nine months before.

He was scheduled to attend a press conference of nationwide importance that morning at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base. The feds were launching the Arizona Border Control Initiative, which officials said would bring "operational control" of Arizona's border with Mexico. (To state the obvious, it failed to do that.)

DeRouchey had packed his golf bag in the trunk of his white Chrysler Concorde; it appeared he was hoping for some R&R after the meetings.

But about 8:20, something must have changed DeRouchey's mind.

While driving at 75 miles per hour, he put his service handgun just above his Adam's apple and fired a .40-caliber bullet through his brain. His car spun around and glanced off guardrails before coming to rest in the median of Interstate 10 just north of Marana.

No one knows why DeRouchey killed himself; he left no note. But his frustration with ICE may have had something to do with it. Friends and family sure think so.

In the months before his death, DeRouchey became deeply concerned about the unproductive conflicts between the old INS and Customs agencies. He wasn't the only one.

Shoved together in the same office after the 2003 merger, INS employees complained that the more numerous Customs people — who were typically better educated and trained — were snooty and disdainful of immigration work.

Customs agents, on the other hand, said their INS partners had little interest in learning about the 600 or so laws Customs enforced. And they resented having to work closely with the Border Patrol and former INS, which they saw as incompetent and corrupt.

Sources describe the INS accounting system inherited by ICE as an unworkable mess, the old INS evidence-handling procedures almost nonexistent. Agents sometimes kept thousands of dollars or guns seized from crimes in their desk drawers.

The contempt for the former INS — and the fact that the ex-Customs personnel had more friends in Washington, D.C. — paved the way for the Customs people to dominate the immigration agency.

Of the original 26 special agents in charge of ICE nationwide, 24 came out of the old U.S. Customs service.

"That sent a message to all of the immigration people that 'you're dreck,'" says Neville Cramer, a Scottsdale resident and former INS agent. (He quit.)

Cramer, who self-published a book last year titled Fixing the INSanity, says the internal strife at the Valley ICE office was acute. Cramer says the Customs people thought immigration work was fruitless, not to mention beneath them.

At the end of the day, he says of the typical former INS employee, sometimes "all you [had was] your name in the newspaper saying you're xenophobic and a racist."

An exodus began of seasoned agents disgusted by what was happening.

The Arizona ICE office started with roughly 300 employees, including support and administrative staff, spread out in Phoenix (the biggest office), Tucson, and the border towns of Sells, Douglas and Nogales.

But most agents able to retire soon fled ICE. Others sought transfers out of the state or to other federal agencies. Some just quit, sometimes after many years with either INS or Customs.

One Phoenix agent who resigned in 2005, just a few years before he could have retired, says ICE was a bad joke: Only one in five agents could speak Spanish, leadership was poor, and the office's mission was unclear.

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."

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.

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.

"ICE doesn't play that game," a source says. Instead, an ICE supervisor oversees an ICE-only squad that isn't integrated with the others.

That way, the source says, the Phoenix ICE squad doesn't have to submit to dominance by the snobbish FBI.

Russell Ahr, the retired ICE spokesman, sees DPS anti-smuggling investigators as "classic examples of Johnny-come-latelys," horning in on the immigration game when no one asked them to, thinking their stats look big. "They are clueless," he says.

Last year, he says, ICE made 7,000 arrests, and caused the prosecution of 350 smugglers.

"That's a shitload when you consider the size of the staff," Ahr says. "The proof of investigations is in the number of prosecutions."

Actually, though, ICE's idea of proof is not ideal for figuring out how well the agency is doing its work.

Like the Border Patrol or DEA, the immigration agency is highly focused on quantity over quality. Big numbers (even if they don't mean much) spur Congress to boost budget allocations.

The truth is, most of ICE's arrests in the Valley are small potatoes.

And many — if not most — began with a referral from a local police department, not ICE's detective work.

After a neighbor calls in a suspected drop house, for example, police call ICE. If it deigns to answer the call, it then counts all the people arrested at the house as its arrests. If a case is generated against a suspected smuggler at the scene, that also counts as ICE's prosecution.

While ICE no doubt releases information to federal budgeteers, however phony it may be, it's hard to find out exactly how much the agency even claims it's doing. ICE seldom issues a public-information release, and it won't hand over reports about its actions or produce the names of people it may be busting.

A list of about 2,000 Arizona smuggling prosecutions released by the U.S. Attorney's Office doesn't reveal which agency made each bust, or whether it involved a proactive investigation from the Phoenix ICE office. Such information can't be gleaned from federal courthouse records, either.

Most current ICE agents contacted for this article refused to comment out of fear of losing their jobs. Those who did demanded that their names not be revealed.

A Freedom of Information Act request for statistical reviews of investigations performed by ICE in Arizona was not answered after two months.

Former spokesman Ahr admits that what ICE does is often kept secret.

But that's not always the way ICE agents want it, Ahr says.

ICE supervisors and the U.S. Attorney's Office won't always give a thumbs-up for a press release, he says, meaning some of ICE's successes go untrumpeted.

Two years ago, for example, ICE investigators arrested 60 people in the long-term "Operation Dry Heat," which was never mentioned by the news media.

As far as most people know, the takedown of the so-called Franco Organization and the Mesa motel bust are ICE's biggest self-made successes in the Valley.

Both were decent cases. The Franco gang had more than 70 members and was believed to be particularly violent. It was notorious for committing kidnappings and assaults. At one point, it held 32 hostages at gunpoint in a Glendale condo.

In the Mesa operation, undercover ICE agents posing as human smugglers found motel owners willing to help them, resulting in 13 indictments and several motels seized.

Ahr says investigations at ICE have been hindered severely. He and other officials both in and out of ICE put a lot of the blame on unsupportive forces in Washington, D.C.

"Anybody that would be honest with you would say they need more people there," says Kyle Barnette, who served as acting ICE chief in Phoenix from March until June 2004. "Michael Garcia [then the undersecretary for ICE] heard all of our complaints and didn't do anything about it."

Barnette, now in the No. 2 position at the New Orleans ICE office, says that in Louisiana, "we can work the whole spectrum."

Because the Phoenix metro area is such an immigration hot spot, he says, ICE agents don't have time to work in-depth conspiracy cases — such as dismantling smuggling gangs — like they do in New Orleans or Atlanta.

ICE regional spokeswoman Virginia Kice refused to state current manpower numbers, or compare how illegal-immigration-sieve Arizona is staffed in relation to other states.

A thorough assessment of the situation leads skeptics to believe that because the government doesn't quite know what it wants ICE to do, it doesn't provide the agency with adequate resources anywhere.

For instance, after spending billions of dollars on three chunky computer systems to track people who visit the United States and overstay their visas, ICE was presented with 300,000 leads to follow up in 2004.

The agency put a nationwide total of 51 people on the job.

It ultimately arrested 671 people, almost all of whom were released to await their court dates.

Usually, though, the majority of illegal immigrants don't show up for their court dates. In other words, they flee. What this seems to mean is that the effort was largely for naught.

A new worksite enforcement plan announced in April by ICE is another example of a program designed to fail, if the overarching goal is to curb illegal immigration.

The stated goal is to bust business owners who knowingly hire illegal immigrants.

But the biggest flaw of worksite enforcement is that business owners supposedly don't know the documents supplied by workers are fake and, therefore, the owners aren't guilty of a crime.

Real worksite enforcement would probably look a bit like "Operation Wetback," the callously named 1950s-era program that Arizona lawmaker Russell Pearce endorses. Tens of thousands of Mexicans living in the Valley would be rounded up and sent home, barring some kind of guest-worker plan.

So far, worksite enforcement hasn't achieved much in Arizona. The only raid has been at the construction site of a new high school in Yuma, where six people were detained for a short time but not arrested.

Telling is that the only two criminal cases involving the hiring of illegal immigrants in the past 10 years happened before ICE was formed.

It may not be entirely ICE's fault that the current worksite-enforcement program is toothless.

Business owners would complain to their congressmen, sources say, if too much worksite enforcement occurred. That's what happened when the former INS went after onion farms in Georgia and a meatpacking plant in Nebraska in the late 1990s.

ICE is also hamstrung by its own complex, inefficient bureaucracy. ICE rules are so complicated, for instance, that it can barely discipline its worst agents.

After former INS agents at ICE known to the government as the "Phoenix Five" were accused of misconduct (ICE has never released details about the case), an investigation dragged on for four to five years. The agents were on paid leave for about two years, costing taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Two of the five cases are still not closed, according to a Homeland Security audit released in August.

State officials hope the new special agent in charge of ICE in Arizona, Alonzo Peña, will make changes that energize the federal investigators and give more aid and friendship to local law enforcement.

The 51-year-old former Texas state trooper has a reputation as a smooth talker and good leader. Those who have worked with him or know of him at ICE say his reputation is impeccable as an "agent's agent" and a good boss.

"Experience has shown these federal officers who have started as . . . local officers tend to work better with state or local officials," says DPS Director Roger Vanderpool. "We hope he'll be here a while."

Peña, previously the special agent in charge of ICE's San Antonio office, has so far declined to return phone calls from New Times. ICE regional spokeswoman Kice says it may be mid-November before Peña sits down with members of the media to talk about his goals and ideas.

The agency's detention and removal division has had success in eliminating the release of non-Mexican immigrants apprehended in the United States. Before last year, those immigrants — who could not simply be walked across the border into Mexico like most illegal immigrants — were released while awaiting their court date. Naturally, they disappeared.

Ahr says that ICE division is scheduled to be beefed up in the Valley so its employees can do most of the routine pickups at drop houses and vehicle stops. If that happens, detectives would have more time to hunt down criminals and do large-scale investigations.

Or more time to sit on their butts.

Critics like Neville Cramer, the former ICE agent from Scottsdale, ask why the federal government would give such a messed-up agency more agents and funding. Why not give the FBI more resources instead? Why not let the FBI, which also has immigration-enforcement powers, handle homeland security?

Fair questions.

Another question is, why have an immigration agency at all?

But the fact is, even if the United States had "open borders" and gave amnesty to all illegal immigrants, the government still would need specialized agents to hunt down foreigners who commit crimes.

If the country ever got serious about dealing with illegal immigration, an effective immigration agency would be imperative.

Some agency would need to operate a guest-worker program, for example, and figure out which immigrants should and should not be participating.

A mandatory, computerized social security number verification system, which Cramer advocates, likely would have a far bigger impact on illegal immigration in this country than building a multibillion-dollar wall on the border. And ICE — or something like it — would need to enforce that system.

For now, though, Arizona residents and local law enforcement would probably be satisfied with more motivated ICE agents and more ICE supervisors who could shed the holier-than-thou "I'm with the federal government and I'm in charge" attitude.

They'd be happy if ICE cooperated on a much greater scale with locals to find and arrest the criminals coming in with the rest of the illegal aliens from Mexico and other countries.

To be fair, some of that is already happening.

Various cooperative agreements between ICE and state agencies are predicted to grow. In one such arrangement, ICE agents now oversee 12 specially trained Arizona Department of Corrections officers to properly identify foreigners who can be deported after their prison sentences end. The program saves the state millions of dollars by getting criminal foreigners out of state prison earlier. Otherwise, the inmates would spend extra months in their cells as their federal paperwork backed up.

In a November 3 news release, ICE also announced it was joining the state's anti-gang task force (not to be confused with the financial crimes task force and the Joint Terrorism Task Force), mostly for operations near the Arizona-Mexico border.

But major change seems unlikely.

ICE's flaws run too deep.

Old animosities die hard.

Leadership at ICE is too flaky.

In January, President Bush appointed a new nationwide chief for ICE, 36-year-old Julie Myers, a former federal prosecutor whose main qualifications seem to be her connections: She's the niece of Air Force General Richard Myers, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and she also just married John Wood, Homeland Security Director Chertoff's chief of staff.

Three months after taking the post, Myers blew off a press briefing she had scheduled with Governor Napolitano during a visit to Arizona, apparently troubled by the state's seizure of money transmitted by immigrant smugglers.

Despite all the current optimism, it remains to be seen whether new Arizona ICE chief Peña will — or can — participate with the state on the money-seizure cases, rejoin the state's drug task force or improve the morale of his own agents.

"I hate seeing it all go to shit," says former Arizona ICE chief Kyle Barnette of the squabbles between federal and state officials. "It takes years and years to build these relationships."

One of the ICE agents who wished to remain anonymous says he knows Peña very well and that he's a "great guy."

But the agent quickly added, "The problem is, he's going to make all sorts of promises, but everybody's going to hate him because he won't be able to keep them. He can definitely talk the talk. This is going to be the first time in his career when he can't back it up."

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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.
Contact: Ray Stern