The top immigration agent in Puerto Rico has been named the fifth temporary chief in 13 months for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in the Valley.
The new acting chief, Roberto Medina, has plenty of experience. But the revolving door of immigration enforcement leadership in Arizona — the state with the highest number of illegal border crossings — has a negative impact on the agency’s mission, said Larry Van Hoose, spokesman for Rep. J.D. Hayworth, R-Ariz.
"We know from personal contact in that office the staff is very concerned about the lack of permanent leadership," Van Hoose said.
Arizona has never had an official permanent chief of ICE since the agency was formed in March 2003 under the umbrella of the Department of Homeland Security. Created by merging U.S. Customs and the Immigration and Naturalization Service, ICE is the largest enforcement arm of Homeland Security.
Complaints have surfaced nationwide about morale and other problems caused by the merger. The new agency also has been plagued by budget problems.
Virginia Kice, ICE regional communications director, said she disputes the idea that operations in Arizona have been hampered in any way by the transitional leadership.
"I don’t think you can characterize this as a lack of leadership," she said.
Still, ICE administrators believe it is "critically important" to get the right person into the job of special agent in charge of Arizona, she said.
Medina is the ICE special agent in charge of Puerto Rico, a title he will retain when he leaves the Valley, Kice said.
No fanfare accompanied Medina’s appointment two weeks ago. Medina could not be reached for comment on Wednesday. He replaces Kent Johansson, who served as the acting chief of ICE in the state since the previous chief, Mike Turner, quit in January. The position covers the whole state since the administration of the Tucson and Phoenix ICE offices were combined last year.
"It’s a very, very demanding position," Kice said. "Kent’s family is in Tucson. He was commuting back and forth. It’s not an ideal situation. I think we felt this individual we brought in, he was eager to take on the job, willing to give it a try."
His arrival was supplemented by the appointment of an acting deputy special agent in charge, Mike McCool of Seattle, she said.
Kice would not say whether Medina was a candidate for the Arizona job, or how long he would stay in the state.
In the last year and a half, the Valley’s ICE office has apprehended 8,211 illegal immigrants and rescued 803 migrants who were being held against their will, agency statistics show. The office, which staffs 50 to 70 agents, also referred 374 cases for prosecution, statistics show.
However, one former ICE agent said she believed it was important for management to have continuity.
"It’s not good for the organization to have a new person every 90 days," said Alma Goss, who has been retired for five months from ICE’s San Diego office. "It’s going to have an impact in all aspects."
Goss was a friend of Thomas DeRouchey, the Valley’s first acting ICE chief. DeRouchey killed himself in March2004 and was followed by Kyle Barnette, who was then replaced by San Diego agent Mike Turner.
In previous interviews, Turner said he was named to be the permanent ICE chief for the Phoenix-based office.
"We all knew Phoenix was ground central for smuggling right now," Turner said in a June 2004 interview. "When they asked me to come over here and run this office, one of the biggest reasons was this office has been without permanent leadership since ICE was formed."
Turner left the post seven months later and quit ICE altogether. Kice said Turner was always considered an interim leader and had never been named permanent ICE chief.
"My heart goes out to the Phoenix people, the employees, because that’s who really gets impacted," Goss said. "A new manager comes in and there’s changes, and that takes time for them to get their directions clear."
March 2003: Immigration and Customs Enforcement is formed nationwide by combining the Immigration and Naturalization Service, U.S. Customs and two smaller agencies. Thomas DeRouchey is interim special agent in charge of the Phoenix office.
March 2004: DeRouchey commits suicide by shooting himself while driving on Interstate 10 en route to a news conference. The No. 2 agent, Kyle Barnette, takes over as acting chief of office.
June 2004: Mike Turner named interim special agent in charge of Phoenix, though says the plan from "day one" is for him to be permanent chief in Phoenix. Barnette becomes No. 2 leader in ICE’s New Orleans office.
November 2004: Leadership for ICE offices in Phoenix and Tucson are consolidated, making Turner ICE chief of the state.
January 2005: Turner leaves unexpectedly after seven months, quitting ICE and joining Commerce Department in Washington, D.C. Kent Johansson, the deputy agent in charge in ICE’s Tucson office, becomes acting chief.
April 2005: Roberto Medina, the agent in charge in Puerto Rico, is named the new acting agent in charge for Arizona. Johansson is moved back to Tucson. ICE headquarters also names a new deputy agent in charge for Arizona, Mike McCool of Seattle. ICE continues to seek a permanent ICE chief for Arizona.