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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.

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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