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INS Expands Its War on Smuggling of ‘Human Cargo’

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Responding to an explosive worldwide growth in migrant trafficking, officials of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service unveiled plans Thursday to open 13 additional offices overseas and, for the first time, post criminal investigators and intelligence analysts abroad to thwart the smuggling of “human cargo.”

The sweeping initiative, stretching from China to West Africa to South America and dubbed Operation Global Reach, “gives us an important new tool to help stem the flow of migrant trafficking at its very source,” INS Commissioner Doris Meissner said at a news conference here.

Behind the $8.2-million program is a central fact: It is much cheaper to deter people from migrating illegally from abroad rather than attempt to find, detain and deport them once they are here.

The initiative represents the INS’ most ambitious attempt to expand its fight against illegal immigration from a focus on U.S. borders to the countries that are both the source of illicit migrants and key transit points in the often-circuitous smuggling routes leading to Los Angeles and elsewhere.

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The INS expansion will include two new offices in China--one in Beijing and another in Guangzhou, long a trafficking center. In addition, the agency will open three new INS facilities in Central America, two each in the Caribbean, Africa and South America, along with individual offices in Tokyo and Copenhagen. With the additions, the INS will have a total of 35 offices abroad.

Helping to staff the new facilities will be 45 additional officers versed in the intricacies of international smuggling rings.

Increasingly, officials say, sophisticated criminal smuggling syndicates, sometimes allied with drug traffickers, are cashing in on the multibillion-dollar traffic of illegal immigrants across the globe. The movement has expanded significantly since the end of the Cold War.

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According to current estimates, up to 1 million people are now contemplating migrating illegally to either the United States or Europe. Many will turn to professional smuggling rings. Fees vary greatly. Mexican coyotes working the U.S.-Mexico border region may charge as little as $300 to take a client to Los Angeles; Chinese smugglers have been known to collect as much as $50,000.

In some extreme cases, investigators have found that smuggled migrants arriving here were held in virtual servitude for years until they could work off their debts to traffickers. Perhaps the most notorious example was the case of 72 Thai workers forced to toil virtually around the clock at a clandestine El Monte garment factory that was finally discovered two years ago and shut down.

Western nations face huge obstacles in combating migrant smuggling, experts say, notably the sheer desire of so many people worldwide to find better lives away from impoverished or war-torn homelands. Many seek to join expatriate relatives and friends ready to help them upon arrival.

Moreover, the potential for huge profits means that bribery and official corruption are widespread.

Jerry Wolf Stuchiner, the former INS chief in Hong Kong and Honduras and one of the agency’s leading authorities on Chinese smuggling, has been jailed in Hong Kong on charges stemming from an alleged scheme to sell Honduran passports to Asians seeking to settle in the United States.

McDonnell reported from Los Angeles, Bass from Washington.


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