Longform

Meltdown

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"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.

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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