Federal agents arrested 79 suspected illegal aliens today on an Eastern Airlines "red-eye" flight from Los Angeles in what officials described as a scheme to transport the refugees in "package deals" that cost them up to $4,000.
Immigration and Naturalization Service agents, acting on tips from a regular business commuter and undercover agents, greeted Los Angeles-to-New York Flight 80 shortly after its 5:30 a.m. arrival on a stopover at Atlanta's Hartsfield International Airport.
"We believe this is one of the largest operations we've conducted that involves illegal aliens on board a commercial aircraft in the United States," said Thomas P. Fischer, district director of the Atlanta INS office. "This may be part of a massive alien smuggling operation."
The immigration service will "continue to target these flights until the transportation of illegal aliens is brought to a halt," Fischer said.
Several of those apprehended were families traveling with children, authorities said.
Some admitted paying up to $4,000 for a package deal that included the flight, a greeting in New York, false papers and possibly a job, said Tom Thomas, a spokesman for the INS in Atlanta.
"You really have to feel for these people," Thomas said. "One guy we interviewed said he sold his truck and personal possessions to pay $900 to a smuggler.
"One of the women said she paid $4,000 each for a family of four."
Thirty-nine of the suspected aliens were from Mexico, 22 from Guatemala, 13 from the Dominican Republic, 3 from El Salvador and 1 each from Honduras and Ecuador. They were to be transferred to INS processing centers in Florida and Texas for deportations, Thomas said.
They were among 179 passengers who boarded in Los Angeles.
None spoke English, Thomas said. The group, dressed mostly in blue jeans, corduroys, jackets and sweaters, rode in the coach section of the 185-seat Boeing 757, surrounded by business travelers and tourists.
"We suspect that a smuggler assists them in boarding the aircraft in Los Angeles," Thomas said, adding that the aliens likely are greeted in New York by relatives and another smuggler.
Thomas said INS sources indicated that it had been "a regular occurrence" for the last 30 days for illegal aliens to use the same flight, and he estimated that thousands of illegal aliens had been smuggled across the country on Eastern airliners.
"It appears at this point from our sources that it's almost a daily occurrence," he said. He said he did not know how the aliens had gotten into the country.
Thomas said Eastern had been very cooperative in the investigation, adding, "We don't in any way connect Eastern and don't want to intimate that they were even remotely involved at this point."
In Miami, Eastern Airlines spokeswoman Virginia Sanchez said, "All I know is that the INS had told us they'd be monitoring a flight this week, and, of course, we cooperated with them."
Thomas said he was not sure how widespread the smuggling method is, how long it has been in use, or whether other air routes are part of the operation.