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 Ontario.
The nightly sweeps at LAX began a week ago after federal agents discovered 79 illegal immigrants on an Atlanta-bound Eastern Airlines flight. Since then, 374 men and women have been arrested in the Los Angeles 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 sweeps elsewhere in the country.
Immigration and Naturalization Service officials believe that, as security tightens around LAX, smugglers are increasingly searching for alternative routes to transport their illegal immigrant clients to other areas of the nation. Some will branch out to satellite airports, while others may resort to buses or trains, officials say.
Temporary Hiding Places
Already, officials reported that many immigrants are backing up at the 30 to 40 “drop houses” in the Los Angeles area that provide a temporary hiding place.
But critics of the INS’ latest 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 airports in Ontario, Long Beach, Burbank and Orange County, as well as at 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 airports in Long Beach, Orange County and Burbank.
Six Salvadorans, who had boarded a Piedmont Airlines flight in Phoenix, were arrested Tuesday in Atlanta, an INS spokesman said. And in Boston, 12 Brazilians were reportedly arrested as they got off a flight from Burbank-Glendale-Pasadena Airport.
“I think you’re going to see this trend,” said Thomas P. Fischer, INS district director for Atlanta. “They (smugglers) will be looking at interior airports or moving up the (west) coast. And (they will be using) different modes of transportation.”
Belluardo said agents are trying to “cover every base” by staking out outlying airports and suspected drop houses, such as the one in Los Angeles where police and INS agents took 52 suspected illegals into custody Sunday night as they awaited airline flights.
INS officials for days have predicted that they would close in soon on top smugglers, or coyotes. But so far, only three have been arrested.
Skeptics question whether the sweeps are seriously aimed at halting smuggling operations. They suggest that the INS undermined its own efforts by trumpeting the arrests in a quest for publicity, instead of an effective, consistent immigration policy.
“It’s a fairly ridiculous law enforcement strategy,” said Peter Schey, executive director of the National Center for Immigrants’ Rights. “If you’re serious, you’d go about your business quietly and catch as many people as you can. I don’t think (you) would publicize it.”
INS officials responded that news media coverage was natural, given the scope of the operation.
“The publicity was inevitable, because when Atlanta took its case down, the media picked it up and didn’t let go of it,” Los Angeles District Director Ernest Gustafson said. “What were we going to do? Do we say it’s an isolated case? We continue the crackdown. . . . Overall, it’s going to pay off: The smugglers will lay low, change their methods or go to other areas. But we keep the pressure on.”
Growing Use of Airlines
Gustafson said the agency had detected the growing use of commercial airlines for smuggling operations over the last couple of years.
In 1986, about 260 immigrants and 11 smugglers were arrested as they boarded two flights at LAX.
Gustafson said an anti-smuggling unit--part of a new, 300-member task force called “Coyote Busters"--was set up at LAX six months ago to videotape passengers and gather intelligence.
In the last 30 days, he said, the smuggling operations appeared to reach an unprecedented level--perhaps because passage through much-used southern Texas has bottlenecked and Border Patrol operations have been stepped up. Also, as smuggling organizations became more sophisticated, the groups being ushered across the country became larger and easier to see.
Action in Atlanta
Nevertheless, arrests were not made until Atlanta INS agents took action, stopping the Eastern flight from Los Angeles. Gustafson denied reports that the INS did not act until airlines complained.
Schey argued that the number of aliens rounded up at the airport is minuscule compared to the illegal Central Americans and Mexicans who are detained routinely in factory raids.
But, he said, factory raids are “far less sexy than running roughshod through an airport tracking down alien smugglers.”
The airport operations actually drew praise from some Latino groups last week. The groups said any efforts to stamp out often-brutal smuggling networks were welcome. Most of the people detained in the airport sweeps have been Latinos.
Immigrants usually pay high sums to the smugglers and are frequently cheated or treated poorly.
Times staff writer Marita Hernandez contributed to this article.