U.S. immigration agents boarded an Eastern Airlines flight here early Monday and arrested 79 suspected illegal immigrants who were bound from Los Angeles to New York as part of what authorities said may be a massive, transcontinental shuttle system for undocumented workers.
Agents said it appears that thousands of aliens have used the same commercial flight over the last month to travel from Los Angeles to New York and other Northeastern cities. Some of the passengers paid as much as $4,000 to unidentified smugglers to be ferried from their native countries through Los Angeles to destinations where they were promised jobs.
“We believe this is one of the largest operations we’ve conducted that involves illegal aliens on board commercial aircraft in the U.S.,” said Thomas P. Fischer, Atlanta district director of the Immigration and Naturalization Service.
Fischer said the INS is pursuing the shuttle system’s operatives.
“This may be part of a massive alien smuggling operation,” he said.
Agents were tipped by airline and airport workers to the regular presence of illegal aliens on Eastern’s Los Angeles-to-New York flight, which departs daily at 10:50 p.m. and stops for refueling here. In the last 30 days, so many Spanish-speaking passengers were aboard Eastern’s Flight 80 that crew members began referring to it as “Air Spain.”
Fischer said Eastern had cooperated fully and is not suspected of any involvement in the smuggling operation.
When the Boeing 757 landed at 5:30 a.m. EST Monday at Hartsfield International Airport here, 30 immigration service agents boarded the airliner and asked each of the 179 passengers for identification and details about his or her final destination.
Immigration officials said the 72 passengers who were scheduled to deplane here were allowed to do so. Of the remaining 107 passengers bound for New York’s LaGuardia Airport, 79 were arrested for having no documents proving either U.S. citizenship or legal residency in this country.
Of those detained, 39 were from Mexico, 22 from Guatemala, 13 from the Dominican Republic, three from El Salvador and one each from Honduras and Ecuador, officials said.
Tom Thomas, an INS spokesman here, said none of the apprehended aliens spoke English. The group, dressed mostly in blue jeans, jackets and sweaters, rode in the coach section of the jetliner, which seats 185 passengers.
Those detained were taken to an immigration legalization center in suburban Decatur, where they were to be interviewed and prepared for deportation to their native countries.
Atlanta INS spokesman Thomas said most of the 79 aliens were scheduled to be bused to Port Isabel, Tex., late Monday. The 13 Dominicans were to be bused to Miami for a flight home.
Many of those detained expressed anger and fear.
“We were deceived,” said Alberto Estevez, 39, a native of the Dominican Republic who said he paid $3,000 to a “coyote,” as smugglers of illegal workers are commonly called, for his trip to New York.
“They (smugglers) painted us a fantasy picture of the United States,” Estevez said. “All I want to do is to return to my country as soon as possible.”
Estevez, who left his homeland Feb. 9, followed what appeared to be a typical route, immigration officials said. Estevez said he flew first to Panama, then to Guatemala. From there, he said, he went by various buses across the border into Mexico to Tijuana. He was smuggled across the U.S. border and made his way to Los Angeles International Airport, where he boarded Eastern Flight 80.
‘How Fast (They) Worked’
Immigration investigators in Los Angeles and San Diego added that some of the 79 on the flight crossed the border at Tijuana as late as last Friday night.
“I didn’t think they could get to Atlanta that quickly,” one immigration agent said. “That gives you a measure of how fast these smugglers worked.”
Among those detained was Dominican Juan de la Cruz-Rodriguez, 34, who said he wanted a job in New York to send money home to his wife and three sons. He said a smuggler in Mexico helped him and about a dozen others cross the border, then arranged to have them taken by flatbed truck to Los Angeles.
He said he sold his truck to raise part of the $1,000 he gave the smuggler. He displayed a quarter and said: “That’s all I have left.”
A young couple from Durango, Mexico, said they were completely out of money. Juan Monterey, 21, and his wife, Luz Zordida, left their two children in Los Angeles with her sister.
“She doesn’t know anything about what’s happened here,” he said, referring to his sister-in-law.
One Mexican alien, who refused to give his name but said he paid $800 to a smuggler, recalled that he had only one thought when he saw the agents board the jetliner:
“ Mala suerte (bad luck)!”
According to senior INS officials in Southern California, the smuggling of illegal aliens by commercial jetliner is not unusual, although they were surprised by the high number Monday.
John Brechtel, assistant INS director director for investigations in Los Angeles, said Los Angeles-to-Chicago flights were popular with aliens smugglers several years ago.
“In one investigation at LAX, we captured 259 aliens going to Chicago,” Brechtel said. “But we don’t see that same problem now.”
He said immigration investigators in Los Angeles were alerted last week about the Atlanta flights and provided with some information that helped lead to Monday morning’s arrests. He did not elaborate.
One veteran INS investigator, who asked that his name not be used, said that many illegal immigrants are finding Los Angeles’ labor pool too crowded, making the journeys to New York, Chicago and other destinations more attractive.
‘There’s Less Heat’
“There are so many aliens in L.A., with many of them applying for amnesty, that who wants to try for a job in this town?” the investigator said. “It would be easier to go to another city. And, too, there’s this thing about New York. I can’t blame them. There’s less heat in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.”
Scheduled commercial jetliners from San Diego’s Lindbergh Field to Los Angeles International have long been a popular way to avoid detection at the Border Patrol checkpoint on Interstate 5 south of San Clemente, said Rudy Murillo, an INS spokesman in San Diego.
Immigration agents sporadically monitor departures from San Diego, but they “can’t be there all the time” because of manpower and budgetary constraints, Murillo said.
An estimated 40% of apprehensions reported by the INS in 1988--about 1 million--occurred along the Mexican border across from Tijuana.
George Ramos reported from Los Angeles and David Treadwell from Atlanta. Times researcher Edith Stanley in Atlanta also contributed to this story.