ICE scaling back Phoenix unit

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By Catherine Holland By Catherine Holland

PHOENIX (AP) — U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has scaled back a unit in Phoenix that answers calls from local law enforcement to identify and deport illegal immigrants.

The move comes just as local authorities prepare to start enforcing Arizona’s immigration law.

Some immigration-enforcement advocates are concerned that downsizing the unit could hamper the agency’s ability to respond to local police, the Arizona Republic reports.

State Rep. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, is among those who foresee potential problems. He is one of the main backers of the Arizona law.

“Secondary to ICE’s ability to respond is the concern that the Obama administration has ordered them, even if they have the personnel, not to respond to any suspected illegal immigrant unless that individual has a serious criminal record or has previously been deported. That’s the number one enforcement problem,” he said.

In June, the federal agency began reassigning members of the Law Enforcement Agency Response unit, or LEAR, to help round up illegal immigrants in others states.

Human smuggling activity in the Phoenix area is down and the agency has been shifting priorities to focus on deporting the most dangerous illegal immigrants.

Agency spokeswoman Amber Cargile said priorities include convicted criminals, illegal immigrants who have been deported from the country but re-entered and recent border crossers.

Phoenix Police Sgt. Tommy Thompson said his department hasn’t noticed a change yet in the agency’s ability or willingness to respond.

“We still have to wait and see if that is going to be the case,” he said.

The U.S. Supreme Court in June let stand the provision in Arizona’s law that allows police to try to determine the immigration status of people they stop or arrest if they have a reasonable suspicion that they’re in the country illegally.

Under the ruling, police could potentially violate a person’s constitutional rights if the suspect is detained for longer than he or she would have been for regular questioning.

The law could take effect after July 20, once lower courts lift an injunction that has been in place since July 2010.

Phoenix is still the only city in the country with a LEAR unit. Created in 2006, it included a supervisor and eight to 10 officers available to respond at all times, said Phil Crawford, who at the time was the field director of deportation and removal operations.

At the time, the agency was being inundated with requests for help from the state, Phoenix police and other local agencies in Maricopa County. Those agencies routinely encountered smuggling vehicles loaded with suspected illegal immigrants or drophouses used by smugglers to hold illegal immigrants.

Crawford said the unit was effective at helping local police combat human-smuggling organizations that were using the Phoenix area as a hub for transporting illegal immigrants to other parts of the country.

Agency statistics show the number of calls for assistance from local police has been falling steadily.

In the last fiscal year, the unit received 1,136 calls from federal, state and local law-enforcement agencies. That was down 34 percent from 2008.

In 2011, calls to the unit resulted in 2,878 arrests, down 63 percent from the 7,752 in 2008.

Calls for assistance are on pace to be even lower this year. From October through May, the unit has received 520 calls, resulting in 1,133 arrests.