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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.

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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