U.S. immigration agents, who have rounded up scores of illegal immigrants at Los Angeles International Airport in a series of sweeps, have widened their focus to include other area airports from Long Beach to Orange County..
The nightly sweeps at LAX began a week ago after federal agents found 79 illegal immigrants on an Atlanta-bound Eastern Airlines flight. Since then, 374 men and women have been arrested in the Los Angeles metropolitan area in what officials describe as a major effort to halt cross-country alien-smuggling networks.
Nearly 100 more--including 18 on Tuesday--have been arrested in similar U.S. sweeps.
Immigration and Naturalization Service officials believe that, as security tightens around LAX, smugglers are increasingly searching for alternative routes to transport illegal immigrants. Some will branch out to satellite airports, such as John Wayne Airport, while others may resort to buses or trains, officials say.
But critics of the latest INS tactics say the agency is using the airport crackdown to grab headlines and must have known that extensive publicity given the sweeps would disperse--but not halt--the smugglers.
On Monday night and Tuesday, agents converged on John Wayne, as well as airports in Ontario, Long Beach, Burbank and LAX.
INS spokesman John Belluardo said 56 people were arrested in Los Angeles and 17 at Ontario International on Monday night. No arrests were made at the other airports.
Belluardo said plainclothes and undercover INS agents had been making periodic checks at John Wayne Airport since March 1 and would continue to do so “until we can establish that the pattern has changed, and they have changed their mode of transportation.”
He added: “As the crackdown at LAX continues, it will force the aliens to go to the smaller surrounding airports. We will keep a tight vigilence at these facilities.”
Skeptics suggest that the INS undermined its own efforts by trumpeting the arrests in a quest for publicity, instead of an effective, consistent immigration policy.
“We just see this as one more step by the INS to attempt to put another Band-Aid on a problem of tremendous magnitude,” said Amin David, president of Los Amigos, an Orange County organization of businessmen and professionals supporting Latino rights.
“All the Rambo tactics have not worked. We’re just merely taking one more step to becoming a nation of xenophobia, that is a fear of strangers.”
Dr. Dan Ninburg, head of the Orange County Human Relations Commission, said he is concerned about how the INS was going about its work.
“If they have direct evidence that a person or group are illegals, then certainly there would be no problem with stopping them” in the airport, he said. “But to go make a sweep and pick up all those of a certain color is highly inappropriate.”
Times staff writers Richard Beene in Orange County and Marita Hernandez in Los Angeles contributed to this article.