Fight Against Immigrant Smuggling Follows Money Trail

By John Pomfret
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 26, 2007

PHOENIX -- In 2001, Arizona state prosecutors trying to stem the growing tide of immigrant smuggling found a Western Union outlet in the border town of Douglas that was doling out more than $91,000 a month -- this in a community where the per capita income was barely $10,000 a year.

People across the country, prosecutors said, were sending money to the little Western Union shop in Douglas -- and scores others like it in Arizona -- to pay smugglers to sneak illegal immigrants into the United States.

To fight back, Attorney General Terry Goddard employed a controversial technique known as a damming warrant to seize $17 million in money transfers into hundreds of Western Union locations in Arizona, prosecute scores of immigrant smugglers and deport hundreds of people in a program he marvels at because of its "elegant simplicity."

On the surface, the warrants were a success. Between mid-2005 and mid-2006, according to Goddard's office, transfers of $500 and more into Arizona fell from $36.8 million a month to just $2.8 million. The only problem was that all of Goddard's other sources indicated that immigrant smuggling was still booming in Arizona.

So on Sept. 21, Goddard expanded the program, issuing a warrant blocking all Western Union money transfers of $500 and above from 26 states with a significant population of illegal immigrants to a group of Western Union outlets in the northern Mexican state of Sonora. He also planned on issuing warrants blocking money transfers through Western Union to nearby states such as Nevada.

Western Union sued to block the Sonoran warrant. "We felt that the state was overreaching," said Peter Ziverts, Western Union's vice president for compliance, "because none of this money ever touched Arizona. So how could Arizona claim it was involved in a state crime?"

On Jan. 9, Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Kenneth L. Fields agreed, quashing the warrant and ruling that it was "unconstitutional as applied under the Commerce Clause, Foreign Commerce Clause, Due Process Clause and the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution."

This legal battle is but one of more than 10 state and federal cases in Arizona over how to police illegal immigration. The cases underscore the pitfalls faced by local law enforcement as it intensifies its fight against immigrant smuggling and undocumented workers. Tactics prosecutors believe are a godsend in the crackdown are often, in the words of one federal law enforcement official, "either brilliant or illegal."

Arizona has emerged as the hothouse for new, sometimes controversial tactics to confront illegal immigration because, as Goddard said in an interview, "we have it rubbed in our face on a daily basis."

Since the mid-1990s when a federal crackdown in San Diego and El Paso forced illegal immigrants into the desert, Arizona has become the highway through which millions of crossers enter the United States. In fiscal 2006, the U.S. Border Patrol apprehended more than 510,000 people attempting to unlawfully enter the United States via Arizona, half of the total for the 2,000-mile-long southern border, according to government statistics.

Phoenix is recognized as the hub of the immigrant smuggling trade, stocked with safe houses where illegal immigrants, known as pollos, or chickens, are held until relatives or friends pay about $1,600 a head and they are moved out on the highways that crisscross the city. In an affidavit filed late last year, Goddard's office contended that Phoenix-based immigrant smuggling enterprises had annual revenues of $1.7 billion to $2.5 billion. The Phoenix Police Department estimates that 50 percent of that city's murders involve either an illegal immigrant as assailant or victim.

Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County, home to 3.5 million people, has made his department one of the first local law enforcement agencies in the nation to direct its deputies to arrest illegal immigrants under a state law. So far 400 have been arrested, although Arpaio's tactics are the subject of a lawsuit.

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