The sister of the top-ranking U.S. Customs and Border Protection official in Arizona pleaded guilty Thursday to smuggling an immigrant through a Border Patrol checkpoint near Tucson in the car she was driving, her defense attorney said.
Tammy Leigh Stephens, 52, of Phoenix, admitted in U.S. District Court in Tucson to aiding and abetting an illegal entry. As part of a plea agreement, a second charge of transporting a migrant not authorized to be in the U.S. for financial gain was dropped, her attorney, Eric S. Manch, said in a telephone interview.
Stephens is the sister of Jeffrey Self, the commander of the agency’s Arizona Joint Field Command, which, under his control, unifies three major border operations in the state and includes one of the busiest smuggling corridors along the Southwest U.S. border.
Agency officials said they have no information that suggests any employees were involved or aware of the alleged criminal activity, including Self.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection “is fully cooperating with the U.S. Attorney’s Office and will refer all questions to them,” Melanie Roe, the agency’s assistant commissioner for public affairs, said in a written statement.
Stephens and a co-defendant, Jason Miles English, who pleaded guilty to the same charge Wednesday, were sentenced to 30 days each, said Cosme Lopez, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office in Arizona. He declined to answer other questions related to the prosecution.
A 25-year veteran of the U.S. Border Patrol, Self has stepped aside from any involvement with his sister’s case, officials said. In the interim, he will be reassigned to Washington, where he will serve as the acting deputy assistant commissioner for the Office of Training and Development. In that role, he will lead efforts to implement recently announced changes to the agency’s use-of-force policies and practices.
The union that represents Border Patrol agents took issue with Self's reassignment.
“A normal Border Patrol agent who had a close relative arrested for alien smuggling would themselves be investigated by internal affairs and the Border Patrol, not rewarded and reassigned to a high-profile position within the agency,” said Shawn Moran, a vice president of the National Border Patrol Council.
Alan Bersin, then commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, appointed Self as the first commander of the Joint Field Command when it was created in 2011. Martin Vaughan, an official with the agency’s Office of Air and Marine, will serve as the Joint Field Command’s acting commander.
The offices that fall under the Arizona Joint Field Command – the U.S. Border Patrol, Office of Field Operations, and the Office of Air and Marine – include operations at some of the agency’s biggest Border Patrol stations, various border crossings and other ports of entry, and unmanned aerial vehicles and other aircraft.
Arizona is a major transit area for human and drug smuggling and has been a major focus for the agency and U.S. Department of Homeland Security. In fiscal year 2012, Customs and Border Protection apprehended 124,631 unauthorized border crossers in Arizona, the lowest number in 19 years, while capturing more than 1.1 million pounds of drugs between and at border crossings and other ports, according to the agency.
The family relation makes for an uncommon situation, but defense attorneys for Stephens and co-defendant English described the alleged smuggling attempt as nothing unusual for that area.
“There’s not really anything about the case that seems out of the ordinary,” said Manch.
Stephens was driving a white Mitsubishi Galant with two passengers Oct. 20 when she approached a Border Patrol checkpoint on State Route 85 near Why, Ariz, according to the criminal complaint signed by a Border Patrol agent.
When an agent asked the nationality of a passenger, Marlene Josefina Rodriguez-Fernandez, Stephens answered that the woman was a U.S. citizen, the complaint shows.
Rodriguez-Fernandez presented a U.S. passport that did not belong to her and eventually admitted that she was not a citizen or national of the United States and did not have documents that permitted her to be in the country.
She told the Border Patrol that she made arrangements to be smuggled into the United States and agreed to pay money for the use of a U.S. passport, the complaint shows. She was told to go to a gas station after crossing the border and board a car with a female driver, who turned out to be Stephens.
English later entered the car, asked for an identification document from Rodriguez-Fernandez and told her “to say that they were returning from partying in Puerto Penasco, Sonora, Mexico,” the complaint shows.
English admitted to the Border Patrol that he agreed to accompany Stephens to the border to “pick up a friend,” according to the complaint.
There's no indication Stephens has been involved in smuggling before, Manch said. He said there were "a lot of reasons" for her decision to be involved in the smuggling attempt, but it was complicated and he declined to give more specifics. He said she was aware of her brother's involvement in border security but did not know his specific role.
"She's embarrassed enough about this incident” and just wants to get back to her life, he said.
This story was edited by Robert Salladay and copy edited by Nikki Frick and Christine Lee.