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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.

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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