The four young men carried no baggage. Short, with brown faces, they moved together through Delta Air Lines’ glistening new terminal at Los Angeles International to Gate 52. There, as if by secret signal, each moved to a different corner of the lounge and sat down. They looked straight ahead and did not say a word.
The men had arrived an hour early for Flight 450, a red-eye to Newark with a stop in Cincinnati. For a week U.S. immigration agents had been on patrol at the airport, rounding up scores of illegal immigrants as they attempted to board flights to the East Coast.
In the course of the high-profile operation, which started Feb. 27 after a passenger tipped off authorities to the presence of scores of Spanish-speaking men on an overnight Eastern flight, the INS had learned that sophisticated rings of smugglers had regularly been shuttling thousands of undocumented workers each month on commercial flights out of Southern California.
Some Paid $5,000
The workers came from throughout Latin America. Some paid as much as $5,000 to be delivered to New York and other Eastern cities, where jobs were said to be plentiful. The illegals would slip across the border at Tijuana, make their way to Los Angeles, hole up for a few days in safe houses and then fly east on inexpensive, late-night flights. One Eastern Airlines flight was so popular the crew began to refer to it as “Air Spain.”
On this Saturday, the sixth day of the crackdown, La Migra was out in force. All night, I had seen the INS agents moving in small packs throughout the terminals. They were not hard to spot in their uniform blue Windbreakers.
“Where were you born?” they would ask suspected illegals in Spanish.
“May I see some identification?”
Agents Catch Man
I watched the agents work American Airlines’ Flight 10 for New York’s Kennedy Airport and United Airlines Flight 118 for La Guardia via Chicago. In Terminal One, they caught a man in a red coat who was waiting to board America West’s Flight 741 for New York via Las Vegas. The arrest was not the stuff of “Police Story.” The man simply fell in step behind the agents and followed them out of terminal.
Like the agents, I also was in search of illegals. But I did not want to deport them, only to follow them on their journey, to see what happened on the other end of this bizarre system that shuttles people across the land to find work no one else seems to want. Deep down inside, I wanted to see if aliens could escape the dragnet. I’ll confess to rooting for them.
At Gate 52 in Terminal 5, more passengers had begun to arrive for the Newark flight. It was bitter cold in the East, and most were dressed for the weather in thick furs and parkas. The four men who had caught my interest wore lighter clothes, cotton jackets, thin gray slacks.
One was especially noticeable in a brilliant green, red and blue pullover sweater. It reminded me of the colorful garb from the Mexican state of Oaxaca, and for note-taking purposes I christened him “Mr. Sweater.” He would turn out to be the leader.
It was he who finally approached the gate counter with four tickets. The agent looked over the paper work and, disapproving, shook his head. A questioning ensued, in English, and it was clear that the agent was not understood. The man in the sweater looked apologetic but said nothing, communicating only with shrugs and sheepish smiles.
After a short time, the agent either was satisfied or gave up, and four boarding passes were issued. The alien returned to his seat, a battle won.
It was now 10:50 p.m., less than 30 minutes before departure, and still no INS agents had appeared. I was surprised, since Flight 450 was destined for Newark. And then I saw him, a heavy-set man with a ruddy face, dressed like a businessman, topcoat draped over one arm.
Head of L.A. Unit
It was Tom Gaines, the head of the INS’ anti-smuggling unit in Los Angeles, el jefe of the coyote hunters. He stood 10 feet away and looked right at me. I froze, and not because I feared being mistaken for an alien, although in the past I have been. I knew this man.
Earlier in the week, I had introduced myself to Gaines at an INS news conference called to report the burgeoning crackdown on alien smuggling on commercial flights out of LAX. He had struck me as a pleasant but determined official.
“If I know something, and if I can tell you, I will,” he had said. “But if I can’t, I won’t. You wouldn’t want me to jeopardize our investigation, would you?”
Now his eyes had locked momentarily on me as he scanned the terminal for aliens. The man in the bright sweater and his three compatriots were nearby, oblivious to the moment. If Gaines saw them--or recognized me--he gave no indication. The boarding call was made for Flight 450 and the INS official slowly walked away. I tried not to look too relieved.
It was time to approach the man in the bright sweater. At first, he did not respond to my attempts at small talk about baseball. I heard myself babbling in Spanish about the spate of publicity surrounding the airport roundups, about my journalistic desire to travel with aliens headed for New York.
Finally, after several long moments, the man spoke.
“I’m from Guanajuato,” he said quietely in Spanish, “and I’m on the way to Newark.”
Are you illegal?, I asked.
He looked up at me, wondering, perhaps, what I might do next.
“See you on the plane,” I said.
“OK, amigo .”
Over the years, the INS has employed many tactics to combat alien smuggling at the nation’s airports, especially those near the Mexican border. In El Paso and Brownsville, Tex., for example, INS agents and Border Patrol officers are stationed near the security and baggage checkpoints in the terminals.
Before the current round of airport arrests, the Border Patrol, which is part of INS, occasionally boarded flights at hub airports, such as Phoenix, to check for aliens. The Border Patrol, however, spends far more resources and officers at the familiar vehicle checkpoints along major interstates and other roads in the Southwest.
INS officials said they were not surprised that illegals were being transported by commercial airlines across the United States. What did surprise them was the volume. One week into the crackdown, they had detained more than 600 suspected aliens. They also said the smuggling rings appeared to be more sophisticated than they had thought.
Critics of the INS operation questioned whether the agency was playing for publicity, rather than sticking to a consistent enforcement policy.
In New York, the other end of the pipeline, there was little evidence of an INS crackdown under way. Agents there have a different set of priorities.
“Our two biggest concerns are employer sanctions, which could lead to fines for anyone who knowingly hires an illegal under the amnesty law, and criminal aliens,” said Scott Blackman, an assistant INS district director in New York.
Said another INS official: “The checking of domestic flights for aliens is not something an illegal is going to find in New York.”
Fully loaded, Flight 450 took off at 11:59 p.m. The four aliens took seats together toward the rear of the coach section. The movie was to be “Cocoon: The Return,” a tale about aliens of a different kind. They did not purchase headphones.
Throughout the 3 1/2-hour flight, the four men never left their seats. They ignored the movie and tried to sleep. When a snack of cold turkey sandwiches was served, they accepted the meal mutely and did not order drinks. They spoke to no one.
The leader, in the sweater, who was seated next to an aisle, only nodded when I walked by. Despite all the news coverage about the airport roundups, the other passengers appeared to pay no attention to these four men or, for that matter, to me.
The aliens’ first glimpse of the Midwest came at 6:55 a.m. EST when Flight 450 touched down in a driving rainstorm at the Cincinnati airport in suburban Covington, Ky. Daybreak was beginning to take hold as the 767 jetliner taxied to the gate.
Four Stay Put
Cincinnati was the final destination for most passengers, who disembarked quickly. Most of the 20 remaining passengers in coach scrambled for window seats or empty middle-section rows where they could stretch out. But the four men I was following stayed put in their center-section seats in the 39th row, sitting virtually alone as uniformed cleaning crews swept through the plane.
It was during such a stopover in Eastern Airlines’ Flight 80 from Los Angeles to New York that INS agents had hopped aboard, capturing 79 aliens and launching the new crackdown. I wondered if my friends were about to be caught, but no INS agents appeared. The four travelers had cleared another hurdle.
I took advantage of the nearly empty plane and moved to a seat near the four men. And, after the plane had departed on the 1-hour, 20-minute leg to Newark, we finally began to talk. I tried to assure them that I was not an INS agent. Several conversation openers were offered, with something less than success. Had they heard of the Cincinnati Reds? Quite a ball team, huh? No response. Probably going to be cold in New Jersey, temperatures in the low 30s and all? Nothing.
Finally, approaching desperation, I blurted out to the leader, “Is ‘Mr. Sweater’ your real name?”
“What?” he replied, taken aback.
“Well, I was just wondering because of that sweater,” I said.
“It was a gift,” he explained.
Gives Name and Age
Ice broken, he said his name was Carmelo Gonzales and he was 25 years old. The three others looked on as Gonzales spoke in a low voice.
“This is our first time in the United States,” he said. “We’re going to New York because we have friends there. We don’t have any jobs there, but we’ll see.
“So, that’s our story.”
The telling seemed rather anti-climactic, but I knew from experience not to press too hard for information from illegal aliens or their smugglers. A few days earlier at the airport, I had approached a coyote after watching him put 12 aliens, whom he called “cousins,” aboard an Eastern Airlines flight to LaGuardia. He had communicated largely with knowing grins, a nod of the head, a shrug and long periods of silence.
Gonzales was of the same school of conversation. Still, he did allow a few pertinent facts to slip out.
Crossed at Tijuana
He and his companions had crossed the border two nights earlier at Tijuana and had arrived in Los Angeles early Saturday morning, the day of the flight.
They didn’t know the people who helped them or remember any of their names. They couldn’t recall the place where they stayed in Los Angeles before coming to the airport. It was probably easy to forget. Before the week was out, the INS would begin raiding drop houses, finding them to be barely inhabitable, filthy and dilapidated.
The four passengers indicated that they had not heard about the INS airport sweeps. Told of the near-miss at the gate, Gonzales expressed surprise.
“Really?” he asked.
Questions about the mechanics of the deal with the smugglers drew varying responses. At first, the alien said the airplane tickets were a gift. Later, he said they had been paid for, but he wouldn’t specify how much they cost. Then he reversed himself again, describing the tickets as gifts.
Don’t Agree on Cost
At another point, he said the trip from Tijuana to New York had cost $800 apiece. One of the others, a 19-year-old who said his name was Mario Cortez, said the fare was less expensive, but before he could explain he was admonished by Gonzales to be quiet.
“That’s our story,” the man in the sweater told me.
Anyway, time was up. The plane was ready to land at Newark.
One of the aliens, who would later introduce himself as Sergio Montes, peered down at the mix of countryside and suburban homes below. He face did not give away any excitement, but it was clear he knew his life was about to change.
He confided that back home, a village in the central Mexican state of Guanajuato, a town that the men refused to name, there was not even indoor plumbing.
It was a little after 9 a.m. when the jetliner reached the gate. The door was opened and the four aliens prepared to head for the exits.
“Well, let’s see what happens,” one said.
They marched, almost comically, single file through the terminal. They did not stop to ask directions, but followed signs indicating a word that’s the same in English and Spanish:
New York immigration experts say there are several reasons for Spanish-speaking aliens to forgo Los Angeles for New York. New York has a large Latino population, primarily Puerto Rican and Dominican, allowing aliens from Mexico and Central America to blend in as easily as they can in Los Angeles.
Moreover, INS operations in New York are said to be more limited than they are in Southern California, with agents conducting fewer sweeps of factories, airline terminals and bus stations.
INS officials are not willing to guess the size of the undocumented population in New York, but estimates from other sources, including the city Planning Commission, put the number between 250,000 and 750,000. By comparison, upwards of 1 million illegals are believed to be living in greater Los Angeles.
As in Los Angeles, many illegals are drawn to New York because they have relatives living there to help them find work.
Dr. Josh DeWind, director of Latin American and Caribbean Studies at New York’s Hunter College, said newly arrived aliens have little trouble landing menial jobs. He said unskilled aliens generally work as flower vendors, dishwashers and the like. Many are hired as hands in fruit and vegetable markets.
Latinos are particularly popular among the Korean market proprietors, who commonly post signs heralding special prices in Spanish and Korean.
Darlene Kalky, executive director of the Center for Immigrant Rights in New York, said she was at once amused and angered by a bluntly worded, help-wanted sign she spotted recently at a Korean-owned market in mid-town Manhattan.
“It said, ‘Hispanic or Mexican Wanted,’ ” she recalled.
Temperatures were in the low 30s as the four shivering aliens approached the first available cab on the lower level outside of the Newark airport terminal.
A driver asked Gonzales, still clad in his eye-catching sweater, where the five of us wanted to go. Gonzales barely whispered his reply and the cabbie asked him to speak up.
“Manhattan,” Gonzales said louder, carefully withholding more specific instructions.
A deal was struck--$40 apiece for two cabs to Manhattan. Gonzales and two others jumped into the lead cab. I climbed into the second cab with the young alien named Montes.
Goal in Sight
By now it came as no surprise when Montes sat silently as the taxis headed north on the New Jersey Turnpike for the Lincoln Tunnel. He seemed grimly determined not to talk about anything. As the skyline of Manhattan loomed larger, however, the alien visibly relaxed. The goal of a journey of many thousand miles was now in sight.
“Which one is the Empire State Building?” he asked.
I pointed it out.
“God,” he said after a moment’s reflection, “that is tall.”
As the cab entered Manhattan and headed up 8th Avenue, Montes began to ask the questions.
“There aren’t any wide-open spaces here?” he observed.
I told him about Central Park, giving him an upbeat description of open fields, groves of trees, ice-skating rinks and winding walking paths, all in the heart of New York.
“Oh yes,” Montes said, “I’ve heard of that--and the muggings there.”
Like everyone else who has ever come to New York for the first time, Montes gawked at the mammoth skyscrapers, occasionally shaking his head in wonder. There was nothing like this in the state of Guanajuato.
Offers a Joke
Told that the world’s tallest building was in Chicago, not New York, he offered a joke.
“They should have the tallest here. Then I could go to the top . . . to try and find Guanajuato.”
The two cabs snaked their way through narrow bumpy streets until they were well inside Manhattan’s Upper West Side. On a street of double-parked cars, the lead cab came to an abrupt halt.
“Are we there?” I asked.
Montes was noncommittal. He silently paid the fare and jumped out.
We were near Broadway and 109th Street, about six blocks from Columbia University. The neighborhood, next to the Hudson River, is full of large apartment buildings, food stands and small clothing stores.
The aliens began walking in no particular direction, obviously lost.
After several minutes they reached Broadway. Without a word, the aliens huddled near a sidewalk bench to consult. Gonzales pulled a crumpled piece of paper from his pants pocket, unfolded it and began to study. The cold clearly was beginning to get to the aliens. Finally, with what appeared to be a measure of shame, they approached and for the first time since we met in Los Angeles sought help.
“Which way is north?” Gonzales asked.
I pointed in the direction of the university.
Gonzales consulted his paper again and then left the group. Jaywalking like a veteran New Yorker, he crossed the street, walked a short distance to a white-brick apartment building and then disappeared inside.
Time to Get Lost
The other three stayed behind, stamping their feet to keep warm, hands jammed in their pockets, shoulders bent. Thirty minutes passed and throughout they said nothing. Finally, they decided to wait no longer. Like countless other countrymen who had come before them, the time had come to lose themselves in a foreign city.
“We’ll see you later, senor ,” Montes said.
A promise was made to meet in the morning for breakfast. The trio walked away and entered the white brick building. I hesitated only a few moments before deciding to follow them inside. A middle-age woman greeted me in the first-floor hallway. She said she was the manager. I asked her about my four friends from Los Angeles, the new arrivals.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she said. “I’ve been walking around all morning and I haven’t seen the people you’ve described.”
Of course they stood me up for breakfast. Trust is not the coin of the realm for the people this country’s government classifies as “illegal aliens.” Better to remain in the shadows, to answer no questions and provide no details. Even talk about baseball can be a trap.
Maybe, too, it was the weather. Snow was falling on the city that next morning, and for newly arrived illegal aliens in New York snow can mean instant employment shoveling walkways.
Dozens of bundled-up Latinos passed by the assigned meeting spot, where I waited for 90 minutes. None knew anything about four men freshly arrived from Mexico, one wearing a brightly colored sweater.
“Can you imagine Mexicans coming to weather like this?” one burly young man asked me. He wouldn’t give his name but admitted that he lived in the same white building where the four travelers had disappeared. He was clearing snow with a shovel in front of a discount clothing store, and he seemed happy for the chance to take a break.
‘A Lot of Mexicans’
“There are a lot of Mexicans in that building,” he said, adding that as many as six to eight illegals live together in its studio units.
I returned to the building several times over the next few days and came to know it well, knocking on doors. There were more than 200 units inside, dingy apartments with few amenities. The hallways were defiled with graffiti and trash. My knocks were seldom answered. Most often, a muffled reply would come from inside, voices saying they knew nothing.
A few tenants did tell me in Spanish that, when asked, it is best to say you are from Puerto Rico, where the natives are U.S. citizens. I even found one resident who admitted that he was an illegal from Guanajuato, the home of Gonzales and the others.
I asked him if had seen a fellow countryman in an unmistakably bright red-blue-and-green sweater. He assured me that he had not, and added:
“Only people from Puerto Rico wear those kind of clothes.”