Episode two of ABC’s newest experiment with reality television, “Homeland Security USA,” deploys action-packed sequences to take viewers inside the frontlines of a leading post-9/11 initiative for the Bush Administration: the final deportation of illegal immigrants.
Behind the scenes, however, further troubling incidents occurred recently amid the department’s own law-enforcement ranks that join a long list of misconduct allegations unlikely to make it into the final edits of the show where the only criminals are foreign smugglers and immigrants.
On Jan. 9, prosecutors accused 44-year-old Michael Clifford, an Immigration and Customs Enforcement officer from Massachusetts, of having sex with an 11-year-old girl in Rio de Janeiro while there on official duty for the Department of Homeland Security. Clifford propositioned the girl outside of a cafe late at night, took her back to his hotel and snapped photographs of the two engaged in sexual acts, according to the allegations. Investigators say security camera footage from the hotel showed Clifford entering with the child and then sending her away in the morning. He is currently in detention.
Then, the day before Clifford was arrested, a federal judge in an unrelated case sentenced former U.S. Border Patrol Agent Juan Sanchez of Arizona to 15 years in prison after he pled guilty to drug, bribery and worker’s compensation fraud charges. Prosecutors say he smuggled thousands of pounds of marijuana in his work vehicle over a period of two years into the United States. He also received a total of $45,000 in bribes, according to the charges, and continued to illegally collect worker’s compensation benefits after recovering from an on-duty vehicle accident without notifying officials that his condition had improved.
Prosecutors imply in court records that they believe the accident was in fact staged. It occurred after he was made aware of the evidence against him but before accusations were officially lodged. Sanchez was alone at the time and crashed into a guardrail. Photos of the vehicle (shown at right) contained in court records show minimal damage to the front bumper.
He nonetheless claimed that the accident caused him to suffer “complete retrograde amnesia” in which he forgot everything about his life, including the allegations that he’d partnered with a smuggler from Sonora, Mexico, to transport multiple payloads of narcotics into Arizona, as many as three dozen bundles at a time. So how could a man with no memory accept a deal and admit he committed a crime?
According to a plea memorandum:
“Sanchez proposes establishing a factual basis to the charges by stating that he has reviewed the videotape of himself transporting drugs in his U.S. Border Patrol vehicle, and has reviewed all the photographs and reports (including his confession) associated with the drug and bribery charges and although they do not refresh his recollection, they have convinced him that he is guilty of those offenses.”
Sanchez received monthly worker’s comp checks of between $3,800 and $4,000 for approximately three years literally until the day of his agreement, all while a cloud of suspicion hung over him. As part of the plea, though, he’ll have to pay $48,000 in restitution to the Department of Labor, according to court records.
None of these new details of real-life corruption at the department are expected to make appearances on “Homeland Security USA.” Instead, while the cameras roll during one scene of episode two, ICE agents from a deportation unit coincidentally based in Massachusetts and driving unmarked cars descend on an unsuspecting contractor as he is exiting his driveway. Officials say the man has overstayed his welcome as an illegal immigrant in the United States by about 13 years, and after placing him in cuffs, they tell “Danny,” as the narrator calls him, that he’ll be heading for detention.
He cries into the camera exclaiming that he has sole custody of his children and one of them is suffering from autism. He can’t leave them now, Danny wails. The officers try their best to soothe him before he’s transported to a holding cell, and from there, presumably, out of the country to a destination not revealed for viewers.
“He committed a crime. He violated the immigration laws of the United States,” an ICE supervisor later declares into the camera. “At that point, he became a fugitive. The bottom line is, there will be folks from this agency out looking for you.”
Spending by the Department of Homeland Security on detention and removal operations carried out by ICE officials ballooned from $1.6 billion in 2005 to more than $3.1 billion budgeted for this year. The workforce responsible for such efforts doubled during that period to 8,360 federal employees. The department set a goal of removing 342,200 people from the country this year and charging a quarter-of-a-million of them with violating immigration laws.
Some once-ailing private jail operators like the Corrections Corporation of America who are these days cashing in on new federal contracts also appear pleased with the Bush White House’s decision to detain immigrants behind bars for months as they await hearings for possible deportation rather than releasing some of them on bail before their court dates arrive, as immigration authorities once did. It’s not clear whether the new Obama administration will enforce that policy.
“Homeland Security USA” has been a public relations coup of sorts for the department, presenting its activities like final deportation strictly in glowing terms and without criticism. But the federal government’s newest bureaucracy battles with its own demons frequently enough these days that the department manages to ruin any improvements made of its image from the gracious help of a prime-time TV slot and weekly access to millions of Americans.
In yet another recent separate case, three employees at an ICE facility housing immigrant detainees pled guilty Jan. 6 to stealing prescription painkillers and other drugs intended for inmates and distributing the medication among themselves and co-workers. Court documents show that two of the defendants, Lisa Schwab and Richard Lawson, were pharmacists at the Buffalo Federal Detention Facility in New York, while the third, Leonard Iannello, was a private guard working for Asset Protection & Security Services, a frequent ICE contractor.
Schwab confessed to a special agent from the Inspector General’s Office that she gave the barbiturate Fioricet to a colleague “almost daily” for two or three years and handed muscle relaxers off to a second, among other things. She alleges that her co-defendant, Lawson, took a “large quantity” of expired psychotropic and pain medications home so they would avoid the notice of inspectors from an accrediting commission. Old pharmaceutical drugs are supposed to be returned to the distributor so the federal government can receive a refund. Schwab also claims that Lawson took a bottle of liquid vitamin K and several needles “to treat his pet dog for an exposure to rat poison,” she wrote in a sworn statement.
The episodes of “Homeland Security USA” that have aired so far are available for free on ABC’s Web site.
• Amount spent by the U.S. Coast Guard on drug interdiction in 2005: $1 billion
• Amount budgeted for drug interdiction in 2009: $1.4 billion
• Amount spent by the U.S. Coast Guard on migrant interdiction in 2005: $549 million
• Amount budgeted for migrant interdiction in 2009: $568 million
• Amount spent by the U.S. Coast Guard on reducing maritime fatalities and injuries in 2005: $613 million
• Amount budgeted for reducing maritime fatalities and injuries in 2009: $778 million
• Amount spent by the U.S. Coast Guard on search and rescue efforts in 2005: $911 million
• Amount budgeted for search and rescue operations in 2009: $1.1 billion
• Cap at which the U.S. Coast Guard promised to limit the five-year average number of commercial deaths and injuries on oceans and waterways under American jurisdiction in 2008: less than or equal to 225
• Actual five-year average number of commercial deaths and injuries: 244
• Percent of mariners facing imminent danger in 2008 that the U.S. Coast Guard promised to save: 87
• Percent of mariners actually saved: 83.6
• Cap at which the U.S. Coast Guard promised to keep the number of collisions and groundings in oceans and waterways under American jurisdiction during 2008: less than or equal to 1,756
• Actual number of collisions and groundings: 1,857
*The U.S. Coast Guard was folded into the Department of Homeland Security upon its creation in 2003.