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Local Police Team Up with Federal Immigration Officials

July 6, 2007 at 6:20 PM EST
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JEFFREY KAYE: On a recent afternoon, Lieutenant Benny Pina sped out to a crime scene on the outskirts of Phoenix.

BENNY PINA, Phoenix Police Department: What we have been told from the patrol officers that first responded is that we have got a single male victim that appears to be bound in some manner.

JEFFREY KAYE: Pina heads the Phoenix Police Department’s homicide unit. Not far from the corpse, inside a command post, a sergeant briefed investigators.

SERGEANT: What we have as far as our victim, Hispanic male, 25 to 35 years old, and looks like he’s been there a few days. And he was handcuffed with black handcuffs behind his back.

JEFFREY KAYE: What’s noteworthy about this case is that two of the investigators are federal agents from ICE, Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

The collaboration comes as communities across the country debate how closely local police should work with federal immigration officials and immigration law. Nationally, state and local police occasionally team with ICE to arrest migrant gang members and sexual predators.

But, in Phoenix, 10 ICE agents are assigned full-time to the police department to work with detectives on violent crimes.

BENNY PINA: He’s got some bleeding on the trees. And we’re pretty sure that he was shot here.

JEFFREY KAYE: Alonzo Pena is the special agent in charge of ICE operations in Arizona. Pena says his priority is to target violence associated with migrant smuggling. He says state and local agencies are valuable partners.

ALONZO PENA, U.S. Immigration And Customs Enforcement: Many times, they’re the first one to receive a call of a drop house in their community. They’re the first ones to respond to a scene where someone’s been assaulted. And we have to have partnerships. There’s no way one agency can address this alone.

JEFFREY KAYE: Violence related to smuggling, both of humans and drugs, has increased in recent years. The Arizona desert has become a main corridor for smugglers and migrants. The traffic shifted as the U.S. fortified parts of its southern border.

Pena says smugglers often extort money from border crossers and steal groups of migrants from each other.

ALONZO PENA: We’re seeing that, that the smugglers in the desert will try to hijack a load. They shoot first. They will shoot the driver. They will shoot at the vehicle.

In these drop houses, we have had everything from where they pull people’s fingernails out to make them — to force them to make phone calls to their responders to send money, to putting guns in people’s heads and in their mouths, to pistol-whipping them, to forcing some of the women that are being held to have sex with the smugglers.

A working relationship in Phoenix

Lt. Benny Pina
Phoenix Police Department
We have established a good working relationship that allows us access to the databases that ICE maintains, and truly assists us in identifying both witnesses and potential suspects.

JEFFREY KAYE: Phoenix is Arizona's largest city. With a Latino population of at least 25 percent, it has become a magnet for Mexican immigrants. Last year, police found that, in about one-third of all homicide cases, either the victim or the murderer came from Mexico.

BENNY PINA: We have established a good working relationship that allows us access to the databases that ICE maintains, and truly assists us in identifying both witnesses and potential suspects. And very important to the homicide investigation is identifying victims' true identity, if they are foreign-born.

JEFFREY KAYE: A case in point:

WARREN BREWER, Phoenix Police Department: That's our victim. And he's talking on the cell phone here. This white minivan belongs to him. That's what he was driving. The guy bouncing the basketball is his nephew.

JEFFREY KAYE: Detective Warren Brewer is investigating the murder of a man videotaped by a store camera just before he was killed.

WARREN BREWER: Roughly a minute after he leaves the parking lot is when we get the 911 call.

JEFFREY KAYE: So, a minute after this, this guy is killed?

WARREN BREWER: Yes, roughly.

JEFFREY KAYE: Brewer says ICE agents provided information about the victim and his nephew.

WARREN BREWER: Both have a history -- or had a history -- with ICE. They had had prior arrests to do with human smuggling and transportation and so forth like that of human smuggling.

JEFFREY KAYE: The next day, Phoenix detectives, along with ICE agent Jeffrey Lehrmann, met outside the convenience store where the victim was videotaped.

MAN: Through witness interviews, they gave us a name. We provided that name to the ICE agents.

JEFFREY LEHRMANN, U.S. Immigration And Customs Enforcement: When we searched some of our databases, we were able to find some pictures, some matches.

WARREN BREWER: We're going to go over here to where the murder took place, and show two photo lineups to two witnesses that observed the actual shooting.

JEFFREY KAYE: Together, Agent Lehrmann and Detective Brewer went to the scene of the murder to interview witnesses.

WARREN BREWER: Go ahead and take your time, and see if you recognize anyone in that group of photos.

Solving murders, smuggling rings

Sheriff Michael Carona
Orange County, California
These are career criminals. Many have been arrested two, three times. Now that we are capturing them through this program [...] a deportation process is really having an effect on keeping them out of our community.

JEFFREY KAYE: The partnership helps police solve local murders, while sharing information allows ICE to learn more about smuggling operations.

Phoenix police officials stress, they are not immigration cops. They involve ICE in certain violent crime investigations, but they want illegal migrants who are crime witnesses or victims to cooperate without fear.

BENNY PINA: We don't determine their status, whether they're here legally or not, until that becomes relevant to the case. The Phoenix Police Department is here to solve violent crimes, those perpetuated on them, on foreign-born individuals, as victims, or if they're suspects. We're just here to solve the crime.

JEFFREY KAYE: But 20 state and local law enforcement agencies around the country are more assertive. Their officers routinely question criminal suspects about their immigration status, after first going through a federal program which essentially deputizes local police.

ICE has trained and authorized some 350 officers to question and detain people suspected of breaking federal immigration laws.

MAN: Step up.

JEFFREY KAYE: The program is used most often in jails. In Southern California's Orange County, 14 ICE-trained deputies interview foreign-born inmates as part of the booking process.

Deputy Arturo Alvarez tells an inmate facing drug charges that he represents the Immigration Department. Asking questions about citizenship and residency, using fingerprints and databases, deputies can arrange for ICE to place holds on suspected illegal immigrants.

So, he is going to be deported before there is a trial here on whatever...

MAN: Oh, no. His criminal matters have to be taken care of first.

JEFFREY KAYE: If convicted of crimes, illegal migrants serve prison sentences before they face deportation proceedings. In four months, the Orange County Jail placed immigration holds on 1,600 inmates, or about 7 percent of those booked.

Orange County Sheriff Michael Carona says the program is effective.

MICHAEL CARONA, Orange County, California, Sheriff: These are career criminals. Many have been arrested two, three times. Now that we are capturing them through this program, and the detainers are being placed on them, a deportation process is really having an effect on keeping them out of our community.

'A fear of reporting crime'

Alfredo Gutierrez
Immigrant rights activist
It's fear of reporting crime. It's fear of being a witness to crime. It's fear of being involved with the police in any way, be it positive or negative.

JEFFREY KAYE: But the process can be flawed. In May, ICE-trained deputies in Los Angeles County Jail identified inmate Pedro Guzman as an illegal immigrant. ICE agreed and deported him to Mexico. But his family says Guzman is a developmentally disabled U.S. citizen. They believe he is somewhere in Tijuana, but can't find him, and are suing for his return.

ALFREDO GUTIERREZ, Immigrant Rights Activist: We're at our lowest possible that we have been in years. The fear is -- is tremendous.

JEFFREY KAYE: Phoenix activist Alfredo Gutierrez says the increased collaboration between local law enforcement and immigration officials has struck fear in the immigrant community.

Gutierrez, host of a talk show on a popular Spanish-language radio station, is a former majority leader of the Arizona State Senate.

ALFREDO GUTIERREZ:  It's fear of reporting crime. It's fear of being a witness to crime. It's fear of being involved with the police in any way, be it positive or negative.

JEFFREY KAYE: Gutierrez's callers agreed. Luisa says she's a janitor who's been sexually harassed by a citizen, and she's scared.

WOMAN (through translator): I don't know whether to call the police or not. Do I call or not call? If I call, and the sheriff comes, what if they deport me? That's what I'm afraid of.

ALFREDO GUTIERREZ: Instead of arresting the citizen, they're going to arrest, in this case, the victim. And that's her fear. Now, she's risking sexual assault. And that gives you an indication of the level of fear.

JEFFREY KAYE: Gutierrez is particularly disturbed by the practices of the Maricopa County Sheriff's Department in southern Arizona. Renown for its tent jail, it also has the most aggressive anti-illegal-immigrant policy of any local law enforcement agency in the country. Not only do jail deputies interrogate foreign-born inmates.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What we're going to do is, we're going to head up north up the US-60.

JEFFREY KAYE: Deputies on patrol also question suspects and witnesses about their immigration status. They are part of a so-called III, or illegal immigrant interdiction strike force. Seventy-two Maricopa County deputies cross-trained by ICE seek out illegal immigrants in a program set up by Sheriff Joe Arpaio.

JOE ARPAIO, Maricopa County, Arizona, Sheriff: Now, my deputies, when they patrol, can put the ICE hat on and arrest the illegals. And we bring them to jail.

CARLOS RENGEL, Maricopa County Sheriff's Office: Once we make the traffic stop, we will determine if human smuggling is involved.

JEFFREY KAYE: Carlos Rengel is among a group of deputies who routinely patrol back roads north of Phoenix, looking for vehicles that appear to be weighed down and could be smuggling migrants.

On this night, Deputy Sean Ross has pulled over a van loaded with eight passengers.

MAN: So, as you can tell, it's -- the more people they pack in the vehicle, the more money they get.

Smugglers and smugglees to jail

Sheriff Joe Arpaio
Maricopa County, Arizona
The smuggler and the smugglees, co-conspirators, they all go directly to jail. We do not call ICE, like everyone else does, to turn those people over, so they can get a free ride back to Mexico. They go directly to the jail that I run.

JEFFREY KAYE: Passengers tell Ross that they entered the United States illegally and stayed for four days at a Phoenix drop house.

These guys pretty much told you what you needed to know, right?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Pretty much, pretty much.

JEFFREY KAYE: I mean, they..

MAN: On both sides. They're building my case for the state side, the human smuggling side.

JEFFREY KAYE: Right.

MAN: As well, I put my federal hat on, if I want to, and I can work the ICE side.

JEFFREY KAYE: The deputies book the driver on a charge of violating Arizona State's anti-smuggling law and accuse the other eight of conspiring to smuggle themselves into the United States. If convicted, they could all serve state prison sentences of almost four years, before being deported.

JOE ARPAIO: The smuggler and the smugglees, co-conspirators, they all go directly to jail. We do not call ICE, like everyone else does, to turn those people over, so they can get a free ride back to Mexico. They go directly to the jail that I run.

ALFREDO GUTIERREZ: It's a tragic, outrageous interpretation of the law.

JEFFREY KAYE: Gutierrez thinks the sheriff has gone too far. He says those being smuggled should not be charged.

ALFREDO GUTIERREZ: The law is specific to human smuggling. The law is not about those who are desperately trying to get here to work. Those people are going to be punished. They're going to be sent back.

JOE ARPAIO: I asked the county attorney for an opinion, and he gave me the right opinion, that we could lock up the people that are being smuggled in. So, we arrested so far 550. We are the only law enforcement agency in this whole state enforcing all aspects of the state law.

JEFFREY KAYE: ICE is expanding its cross-training program. Seventy-one law enforcement agencies around the country have either requested training or are receiving it, so their officers can do immigration checks.