Crossing Borders

The agent who ordered the arrest of "20th hijacker" Zacarias Moussaoui joins a law firm known for its aggressive defense of immigrant rights

When Mark Cangemi turned on his car radio on the morning of September 11, 2001, he thought he had tuned in a radio drama, something like War of the Worlds.

Then his pager went off. His orders were to get to the U.S. attorney's office in Minneapolis, and fast. Cangemi was just outside of Stillwater at the time, in a car lent to him by the Twin Cities branch of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, for which he was in charge of investigations. He flipped on his lights and sirens and sped west.

Three weeks earlier, Cangemi had sent two of his agents—working alongside the FBI as part of an experimental "Joint Terrorism Task Force"—to arrest Zacarias Moussaoui. The Muslim man had been reported by his flight instructor in Eagan for behaving strangely. The Moroccan-born French citizen, who had no pilot's license, had paid $8,300 to learn to fly large jets in a flight simulator.

After a 34-year career as an immigration cop, Mark Cangemi now works for a law firm on the other side of the debate
Raoul Benavides
After a 34-year career as an immigration cop, Mark Cangemi now works for a law firm on the other side of the debate

The FBI didn't have enough evidence yet to make criminal charges stick, but the agency feared Moussaoui might be planning some sort of attack using an airplane, so Cangemi had ordered him detained by the INS for an expired visa.

The so-called "20th hijacker" was sitting in Elk River's brand-new Sherburne County Jail when American Airlines Flight 11 crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center.

At the U.S. attorney's office, where Cangemi had set up a temporary command center in an empty room hours after the attacks, Moussaoui was Cangemi's entire to-do list. He and his FBI counterpart got a warrant for Moussaoui's laptop shortly after the attacks, and discovered detailed information about crop-dusters—which were subsequently grounded with the rest of the air traffic.

Mark Cangemi became the youngest anti-smuggling agent in America in 1979. He was already several years into a career in law enforcement, where he was following in his father's prodigious footprints. Peter Cangemi had joined the Border Patrol in Michigan in 1940 after seeing a recruiting poster, and was stationed on the Mexico-Arizona border the day the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.

Cangemi's career overlapped that of his father, who retired as Detroit's head of INS investigations in 1977. Like his father, he collided early with international events. During the Iran Hostage Crisis, Mark rounded up and detained Iranian students, who rioted under his watch.

Stationed in Chicago from 1975 to 1985, Cangemi made a name for himself through his undercover work in "Operation Gypsy," a sting that busted an international human smuggling ring ferrying Yugoslavian and Albanian citizens monthly from Eastern Europe to Mexico and across the border into the United States. Cangemi worked undercover as a smuggler for the ring and earned himself one of immigration law enforcement's most prestigious awards: the Newton-Azrak, named for two border patrol officers murdered in the line of duty in 1967.

In Phoenix, his next post, he took a two-year undercover assignment as a coyote, smuggling people across the Mexican border and delivering them to employers in the United States for a fee. The photo on his fake Canadian ID showed a wild-looking young man with sideburns and a nest of scraggly hair. He told clients he was a pilot who had been busted flying a load of dope to Chicago. The DEA had seized his plane, the story went, and he was smuggling immigrants from Arizona to Chicago until he earned enough money to buy it back.

His next operation in Phoenix was a surveillance job monitoring church groups, mostly Catholic, engaged in the work of the "Sanctuary Movement": smuggling and protecting refugees fleeing Central American countries in the grip of civil and cross-border wars fueled in part by U.S. government funding and military support.

The assignment got to Cangemi. Here was a Catholic boy, educated by Jesuits, spying on Catholic clergy and congregations to bust churchgoers who were trying to help desperate people flee wars and collapsed economies. Often during "Operation Sojourner," Cangemi would steal away to a tiny church where he'd sit and try to sort it all out.

Cangemi came to the Twin Cities from Phoenix in 1988 and took a post as assistant district director for investigations in the St. Paul INS office, which he expanded to include posts in North and South Dakota. His duties in the Midwest were diverse. He investigated a Kuwaiti man charged with food stamp fraud and helped to extradite a Sikh man wanted in India for a bombing that killed nine people. He deported immigrants convicted of violent crime and busted sex trafficking rings.

In 2003, the reshuffling of federal law enforcement agencies saw the elimination of the INS and the scattering of its responsibilities. The Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, better known as ICE, was created under the umbrella of the Department of Homeland Security. Cangemi was named ICE special agent in charge of a five-state area surrounding his Twin Cities base of operations.

Cangemi was "outstanding" at ICE, says Thomas Heffelfinger, who came on as U.S. attorney for Minnesota shortly after 9/11 and watched the INS veteran guide a major transition for immigration enforcement: from a Department of Justice operation to a Department of Homeland Security agency. "It's the kind of inside baseball the average public doesn't see," Heffelfinger says, "and it was important that it happen with the fewest possible wrinkles."

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