Center for Investigative Reporting
November 1, 2013
by Andrew Becker
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,
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
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
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
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.