Crossing Borders

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

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.

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."

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." 

Sponsor Content


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >