In the parlance of alien smugglers at Los Angeles International Airport, everybody has “cousins.” With a knowing smile, a man who all too readily identified himself as Jose Luis Hernandez admitted that he had just boarded three “cousins” on Eastern Airlines Flight 80 bound for New York, via Atlanta.
“Yes, they are illegal, but they’re my cousins,” said “Hernandez,” a winning young man dressed in designer blue jeans and a white jacket.
Later, when asked about the six additional passengers he had just presented with tickets at Gate 65 to board the red-eye flight, Hernandez was not daunted.
“Oh, they’re my cousins, too,” he said, all but winking.
This was Tuesday night, just 24 hours after Immigration and Naturalization Service agents apprehended 69 suspected illegal immigrants boarding Flight 80 en route to New York and the promise of jobs. Earlier that same day, 79 others had been taken off the same flight when it stopped in Atlanta for refueling.
INS officials described Eastern’s flight, which departs daily from LAX at 10:50 p.m., as an unwitting conduit in a massive transcontinental smuggling operation that apparently moved several thousand illegals out of Los Angeles in the last month alone. Some of the aliens arrested said they paid as much as $4,000 for a package deal--transportation from home, housing, the Eastern plane ticket and a job in New York.
The series of airport arrests, including the detention Wednesday of 27 suspected illegal immigrants in North Carolina aboard a Piedmont Airlines flight, has focused new attention on Los Angeles’ role as a hub for the nation’s force of illegal workers.
While the fact that Los Angeles is an attractive port of entry for aliens is widely documented, the use of flights from Los Angeles International to dispatch the workers to destinations throughout the continental United States is less well known, and on this topic Hernandez is an expert.
There were no agents working the gate Tuesday night, he was free to ply his trade and, in a limited fashion, discuss it. In all, Hernandez boarded about 12 of his “cousins.”
The young man was uncommonly forthcoming when asked directly if he was a smuggler of aliens.
“Yes, I’m a smuggler,” he said.
Hernandez, a Salvadoran who said he lives in Orange County, said it is his job to meet illegals who have crossed the U.S. border at Tijuana. He meets them near Santa Ana. From there, he escorts them to LAX and makes sure they board Eastern Flight 80.
Was he not afraid, given the recent INS attention to the flight?
“What are they going to do to me?” he replied. “Send me home? I could be back in no time.”
Hernandez said that using a commercial aircraft is a lucrative way to smuggle aliens.
“It is easy to do,” he said.
Pressed on how the tickets, which INS officials say are purchased in bulk, were obtained, Hernandez smiled and said: “I don’t know anything about that.”
Other questions--such as “How much did your ‘cousins’ pay you?” or “Who are your bosses?"--were answered in much the same way.
His “cousins” Tuesday arrived in twos and threes, all of them young men. Most carried no baggage and wore drab clothes. Some held grocery bags filled with belongings.
Airline Workers Pass Them
Hernandez escorted each set of his “cousins,” all of them Spanish speakers, inside Terminal 6 to Gate 65. The airline workers checked their tickets and boarding passes, and then left them alone. They sat together in rows, waiting to board the plane. Hernandez hovered around the scene, keeping his charges in sight.
When Flight 80 was announced, six who were sitting together joined the line of passengers waiting to board. Approached by a reporter, who assured them that he was not an INS agent, the six said in Spanish that they were illegal immigrants headed for New York.
“I don’t have a job there yet, but I hope to,” said one alien, who said he was from the Mexican state of Zacatecas.
“We’re not looking for trouble,” one of the others interjected. “We just want to feed our families.”
And with that, they boarded the flight without incident, and apparently managed to complete their journey to New York.
Twenty-seven others on another flight were not so lucky Wednesday. They were detained in Charlotte, N.C., by federal agents who boarded a Piedmont jetliner and asked for documentation of U.S. citizenship or legal residency.
Tipped by Irate Passenger
Supervisory INS Agent David Carmichael in Charlotte said agents had been tipped by an irate passenger who said there were New York-bound illegals on the flight. Recent publicity about the airport apprehensions prompted the unidentified passenger to notify authorities when the plane landed, Carmichael said.
According to federal officials, the 27 had flown on another airline from Los Angeles to Phoenix and then transferred to the Piedmont flight, which was to have taken them to New York.
One of the suspected aliens, Mario Gonzales, said he had borrowed $3,000 and paid it to a man who arranged ground transportation to Los Angeles and then air transportation to New York. He said the man promised him a job at a construction site in New York, where he would be paid $30 to $40 a day, far below union scale.
INS officials in Atlanta, meanwhile, said Wednesday that smugglers may start dumping the blocks of airline tickets purchased in advance of the recent arrests.
“They’ve already purchased their tickets before they even know who is going to buy the ticket or who is going to pay for the smuggling process,” said Neil Jacobs, assistant INS district director for investigators in Atlanta. “Probably even more as a result of Monday’s and Tuesday’s operations, you are going to see more and more smugglers attempting to unload these tickets, and get as much money as they can before we really start scrutinizing everybody.”
INS officials in Los Angeles offered no new details Wednesday on their part of the investigation. Officials said the situation would be discussed today when Harold Ezell, INS western regional commissioner, meets with Los Angeles District Director Ernest Gustafson. The two have been out of town, officials said.
Times staff researcher Edith Stanley in Atlanta contributed to this story.