Department of Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge vowed Wednesday to do "whatever it takes" to slow the increasing violence tied to immigrant smuggling in the Valley.
Speaking at the Phoenix Civic Plaza, Ridge said any smuggling network capable of importing drugs and migrants into the country could also be used to bring in terrorists and their weapons.
"As we go about eradicating those transportation networks, we reduce the number of choices the terrorists have to enter our country," he said.
Ridge met with state law enforcement officials before his speech, praising the cooperation of local agencies involved in a new antismuggling effort led by the U.S. Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which Ridge oversees.
However, questions still persist about the scope of that effort, called Operation ICE Storm.
ICE kicked off the operation Nov. 10, following a shooting on Interstate 10 that left four immigrants dead and five wounded on the same day Mexico President Vicente Fox made a historic visit to Phoenix.
At the time, ICE officials said the operation included a "task force" composed of 13 federal, state and local agencies. A day later, the police chiefs of Mesa and Tempe said they never agreed to provide officers for the task force because of a lack of resources.
A news release issued by ICE during Wednesday’s event omits Mesa and Tempe — both of which investigated immigrant kidnapping cases this year — from a list of task force members.
"Our primary responsibility is public safety, not the immigration status of those who we serve," said Tempe police spokesman Sgt. Dan Masters.
The issue is a delicate one, Masters said, ever since the backlash against Chandler in July 1997 for that city’s roundup of suspected illegal immigrants by police. Besides the bitter feelings of some community members, Chandler also paid $575,000 in a legal settlement.
ICE spokeswoman Virginia Kice said on Wednesday that ICE "tried to be sensitive" to the concerns of Mesa and Tempe police and was not forcing anyone to be on the task force. Officials also emphasized that police agencies around Arizona continue to share intelligence with ICE, and vice versa.
Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio said his agency is not providing any officers for the task force, but he hopes sharing information with ICE will lead to some arrests in the 12 slayings involving immigrants he is investigating. He said he told Ridge the government should help bring a high-level Mexican official to Arizona who can work directly with local law enforcement agencies.
"I want a direct line to Mexico," Arpaio said.
Operation ICE Storm has led to substantial drug seizures, the arrest of 81 suspected smugglers and the freezing of more than $1.4 million of smuggling proceeds, officials said. A toll-free ICE tip line, (866) 347-2423, received more than 50 calls.
The operation also added 50 ICE agents to the Valley to the 50 already here, which has meant more cases being referred to the U.S. Attorney Paul Charlton’s Phoenix office for prosecution. Charlton said ICE promised to fund two new federal prosecutors in Arizona to deal with the larger caseload.
Ridge said he wants to keep cracking down on the people-smuggling trade, which hundreds of thousands of migrants rely on to bring them across the U.S. border. Plans are being developed to patrol the border with unmanned flying drones like those used in the Iraq war, he said.
But the enforcement cannot be overly strict, Ridge said.
"We have to make sure what we’re doing doesn’t impede the legitimate flow of goods," he said.