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Saturday, June 05, 2004

East Valley Tribune Online

East Valley Tribune Online

The 2:30 a.m. incident Tuesday on Loop 202 resulted from a lack of manpower — a problem that was supposed to be fixed with the addition last fall of 50 extra immigration agents in the Valley.

“I'm not going to suggest . . . there were no mistakes made,” said ICE acting special agent in charge Kyle Barnette, adding that he did not learn of the release until it was over. “We have the people — wake them up, get them out there.”

A state Department of Public Safety officer on Tuesday noticed two full-size vans traveling together on the freeway near the Dobson Road exit, said DPS spokesman Steve Volden.

When the officer tried to pull them over on a traffic violation, one exited the freeway at Country Club Drive and crashed in a ditch. Nearly 30 people got out and began running, Volden said. Other DPS officers called to the scene caught 18 of them, he said.

The second van, which was packed with 25 people, tried to flee on the freeway but was pulled over. Two more DPS officers showed up and helped handcuff the suspects. One resisted, breaking an officer's wrist, Volden said.

The officers called ICE but were told no detention officers were available for at least four hours, Volden said.

Barnette said no detention officers work between 4 and 6 a.m., but he could not explain the lack of agents when ICE received the DPS call at 2:49 a.m.

One ICE agent picked up a van and headed to the scene immediately, but the van could only hold 18 people. So DPS officers asked the agent to get 18 suspects being held at McDowell Road and Mesa Drive, Volden said.

Twenty-four of the suspects on the freeway were marched one mile to the Gilbert Road exit, where they were freed. The man accused of breaking the officer's wrist was arrested on suspicion of aggravated assault, Volden said.

Barnette said no identity check was performed on the 24 who were released, so ICE has no idea whether some of them were hardened criminals or even illegal immigrants. However, the 18 taken into custody were all undocumented immigrants, he said.

“I will suggest my officer made a mistake,” Barnette said. “I would not have sanctioned or authorized releasing those people into the community.”

Such releases of immigration suspects were common in the past, but federal officials vowed to end that practice after launching the crackdown
dubbed “Operation: ICE Storm,” which doubled the number of Valley agents.

Volden said ICE still sometimes fails to respond when groups of illegal immigrants are discovered. Patrol officers sometimes say it is “hit or miss” to get ICE to come out, and it depends on the number of suspects involved, Volden said.

He said one officer related a story to him about being told by ICE that “20 people is the number, as a general rule” to get federal agents to respond. But once the officer called and said he had 20 to 22 suspects.

“The (ICE) person we talked to said we need to have 30,” Volden said.

Last month in Phoenix, ICE was called but did not come to a drophouse where 15 or 20 suspected illegal immigrants were found, said Phoenix detective Tony Morales. He said ICE has come out more frequently since the crackdown, but he remembers the frustrating days when immigration agents sometimes did not even answer their phones.

“We absolutely don't want it to go back,” Morales said. East Valley police officials said ICE always responds when called, although fewer drophouses or large groups of illegal immigrants are found in the East Valley compared with Phoenix.

Only 19 of the 50 new ICE agents will be permanently deployed in the Valley, and shifting priorities could also affect the future staffing level, Barnette said. However, Barnette said the Valley would never be “neglected” by immigration authorities like in the past.

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