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

Cangemi's retirement from immigration enforcement at the end of December 2006 was mandatory—special agents must step aside at age 57. For a retirement gift, a friend and former INS agent sent him two large boxes of books to soak up his hard-won free time.

His beeper went silent. Friends who had left the work before had warned that he should expect a tough transition, and he rode it out for several months at a modest cabin on some acreage in Wisconsin. Cangemi took long walks. He read histories of Mexico and U.S. foreign policy in Iran.

Mostly, he mulled the same question over and over: After 34 years, do I call it quits or keep going?

He had some job opportunities, one of them a longstanding offer from Igbanugo Partners International, a Minneapolis-based immigration law firm with a reputation for being a zealous defender of immigrant rights. In Igbanugo, Cangemi saw an opportunity do some preventative work: to go into immigrant communities and tell them how not to break the law. He did a little of this after 9/11 as a cop—but now, as he says, he has reacquired his First Amendment rights.

Two months ago, he showed up for his first day of work at Igbanugo. He decorated the walls of his office with the awards and mementos of his career in law enforcement. He hung a collage of souvenirs: his fake ID from the Phoenix smuggling operation, a blank Social Security card produced by fraudsters, photos of the boats he seized in a Miami operation to apprehend refugees fleeing Cuba, and a picture taken at his last bust in Phoenix before moving to the Twin Cities—nearly a dozen men jammed side by side in the back of the pickup truck that had carried them undetected across the border. The men, most of them young, all carry the same question on their solemn faces: "What now?"

Cangemi says he keeps that photo where he can see it as a reminder of what's at stake in the immigration battle: real people. For all of his success enforcing U.S. immigration policy, Cangemi sees a lot of holes in the law and its enforcement. Chief among them: employer sanctions.

Cangemi the lawyer wants to focus squarely on the businesses that hire and exploit illegal immigrants: He sees their practices as a form of modern-day slavery. He wants to help the companies and individuals who want to work within the law—including those under ICE investigation. Those who pay no heed to the law he wants held accountable.

His first client falls under none of these categories. He met the guy at a Mexican restaurant. Cangemi is a regular at the place. He sits at the bar and practices his Spanish with the proprietor who, until recently, knew nothing of his law enforcement background. Cangemi started opening up a bit after his retirement, and the proprietor opened up, too, asking for advice on some family immigration issues. One day Cangemi was on his way from the restaurant to his car when the proprietor followed him out and told him he would like to hire him. Cangemi accepted. As he recounts the story, he seems to surprise himself all over again.

The reaction among local immigration lawyers and immigrant advocates has been mixed. "It takes some longer than others to come to the right side," Stephen Thal, a private practice lawyer who has dealt with Cangemi, says with a chuckle. Others closely associate the former ICE agent with the aggressive tactics that immigration cops have used in recent years. Cangemi is quoted in news stories about workplace raids going back to 1990. And he's always the scripted tough cop: "We know there are more," he says after 1993 raids at meat-processing plants that netted 55 undocumented workers in and around Worthington. "We deal more with Hispanics," he told reporters one year later, following a similar raid, "but they are the people who are breaking the law more."

Gloria Contreras-Edin, of the legal advocacy organization Centro Legal, is suing ICE for a 2006 Worthington raid organized under Cangemi's watch that she says demonstrated values inconsistent with those she's known Igbanugo Partners to defend. The lawsuit, which does not name Cangemi, accuses his ICE agents of constitutional and civil rights violations.

Cangemi is just getting started at Igbanugo, and it would be too easy to say he has gone through some sort of metamorphosis. He's still got a cop's bias. "I grew up in enforcement; everything I saw was either a fraud case or a smuggling case or a gang case—the list goes on." But if he's got a mantra, it's this: "Nobody comes to the table with clean hands." 

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