Illegal Immigrants Smuggled Through Northern Arizona

Flagstaff, AZ – SFX: patrol car scanner cars whizzing by

Cars steadily slow down as they spot Department of Public Safety officer Matt Bratz' patrol car on the Interstate 17 median near Kachina Village south of Flagstaff. Bratz listens to his scanner that makes an annoying high pitched beeping sound when a car drives by him over the speed limit.

SFX: high pitched beeping

He says he sees an average of two to three vehicles an hour that he suspects are smuggling illegal immigrants.

BRATZ: It's a tough situation no two ways about it but I think it's a problem that needs to really be addressed. Really needs to be addressed. (fade AMBY)

He says there are a few common indicators. He looks for large vans or trucks often with tinted windows, several men about the same age and an unusually large number of patriotic stickers. If they have violated a traffic law, he pulls them over. But he says investigating human smuggling or trafficking is tricky.

BRATZ: Unfortunately we don't have a lot of authority in that area when we find situations like this thru interviewing its revealed they're trafficking humans we'll contact immigration or ICE, notify them of our findings, and hope they can come out and assist or take over contact.

Bratz says it can take up to six hours for an ICE agent to arrive from their nearest office in Phoenix. And ICE officials admit they won't put in the time unless they're guaranteed a big arrest.

BRATZ: So therefore at that point we cut the people lose and let them go on their way because we don't have the manpower to be able to standby.

PENA: We certainly do not want allow people to believe there's a free pass through northern Arizona.

That's Alonzo Pena, the special agent in charge of immigration and customs enforcement in Phoenix. He says ICE takes a three tiered approach to fighting illegal immigration. The first tier is at the border. The second is at the drop houses and other large smuggling operations in the Phoenix area. The third tier Pena admits is one they haven't yet covered sufficiently.

PENA: If they're going to transfer through Arizona, go to the northern part of the state we do not currently have a presence there. But we are responsible for that area we will respond to calls and we will detail agents to that area. It's not completely to say no activity is going to take place there but we just do not have at this time a permanent presence there.

Right now they rely heavily on the handful DPS officers who have been trained by ICE to handle these crimes. Those state officers can make arrests but there are too few of them to put a big dent in the problem. Pena says there are so many other major smuggling operations in Phoenix, they don't always have the resources to respond to a call three to six hours away.

Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard says that doesn't mean northern Arizona should be left vulnerable.

GODDARD: In northern Arizona what I believe has to be recognized Arizona is a border state. I mean all of it. In Flagstaff you may feel less of the impact than in Nogales but the fact is that we have intercepted large, large convoys of smuggled human beings in the corridor going from Wickenburg and up to Kingman.

He says typically they're on their way to Las Vegas, where they can fly out of the state or the country.

Earlier this year ICE sent two agents to northern Arizona to assess the need for a permanent office here. ICE officials reported back a definite need. So what's the hold up? Pena says he's requested agents and other resources from the federal ICE office. Now that office is looking at its budget and the needs across the country, and determining whether northern Arizona is a priority.

Attorney General Terry Goddard

GODDARD: I'm afraid the continuing plea by the governor, by myself, by other law enforcement is to get more resources from Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

In the meantime ICE officials say the plan is to train as many state DPS officers as possible to deal with federal immigration crimes in northern Arizona.

For Arizona Public Radio I'm Laurel Morales in Flagstaff.