Longform

Meltdown

Page 6 of 10

"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.

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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