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Human Smuggling Targeted

Times Staff Writers

A day after authorities discovered 90 illegal immigrants held in a Canoga Park bungalow, federal officials announced Tuesday that they were planning tougher measures to combat human smuggling in Southern California, including increased monitoring at Los Angeles International Airport.

The region has seen more immigrant smuggling cases in recent months as federal officials have cracked down on the practice in Arizona.

The Arizona campaign has focused in part on Phoenix’s Sky Harbor Airport, once a key transport center for illegal immigrants smuggled by land through Latin America and to the East Coast by air.

Officials have posted agents around the airport on the lookout for illegal immigrants.

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The federal government hopes to replicate that effort in Los Angeles.

Additionally, agents want to better track where the money paid to smugglers ends up and identify those running the operations, said Virginia Kice, spokeswoman for the U.S. Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

The new initiative comes after authorities discovered the second large “drop house” for illegal immigrants in the Los Angeles area in a month.

A relative of an undocumented immigrant being held at the Canoga Park site called Los Angeles police Monday night after alleged smugglers demanded additional transport fees.

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Prices for smuggling someone across the border range from $1,500 for a person from Mexico to $10,000 for people coming from Central America.

And smugglers often raise the price after bringing illegal immigrants into the U.S., confining their cargo in clandestine locations until their relatives pay a ransom.

Police and federal agents discovered the roughly 90 illegal immigrants Monday night in a squalid structure behind a house on Loma Verde Avenue.

Authorities recovered lists of the immigrants’ names along with phone numbers of relatives in New York and other U.S. cities, piles of new clothes, and cellphones.

They also found mounds of shoes, which often are taken from the immigrants by smugglers to prevent them from escaping.

Immigration agents said that the people found in Canoga Park came from Mexico, Guatemala and El Salvador, but that officials were still trying to determine precise numbers.

Most of the immigrants crossed the border three days ago in Nogales, Ariz., or near El Paso, officials said. The majority appeared to be heading for the East Coast.

The scene was similar to one last month at a drop house in Watts, where 110 illegal immigrants were crammed into a tiny bungalow that had just one broken toilet.

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Senior immigration officials from several Western states and Washington, D.C., met Tuesday in Phoenix to discuss how to strengthen enforcement measures on a regional basis, including in the Los Angeles area.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement is using its experience in Phoenix as a model.

There, the federal government has increased the number of Border Patrol agents at the airport and employed “behavioral profiling” to identify illegal immigrants.

Border Patrol and customs agents keep an eye out for behaviors that they say are hallmarks of those being smuggled. These include people walking together -- “the baby duck phenomenon” -- who often carry no luggage and follow guides who buy one-way tickets with cash.

Many suspected illegal immigrants are “practically hand-carried to board the flight because they’ve never been on a plane,” said Arizona customs spokesman Russell Ahr.

By contrast, Kevin Jeffery, an immigration agent based in Los Angeles, acknowledged: “We don’t have a big presence at LAX right now.”

Immigration officials in Arizona have also worked more closely with local police to locate smuggling rings than has traditionally been the case in Los Angeles, where the LAPD has a long-standing policy of avoiding involvement in immigration enforcement.

Immigration authorities in Phoenix intensified their efforts after a spike in violence associated with immigrant smuggling. During the last two years, the area has seen carjackings of smuggling vans, kidnappings of illegal immigrants and shootings between rival smuggling gangs. The crimes have outraged community leaders and prompted calls for more action against smugglers.

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Since September, immigration agents in Arizona have confiscated 100 weapons and $5.2 million in proceeds from the alleged smuggling of people. In addition, they have charged more than 200 people with crimes related to such smuggling.

It’s unclear whether immigrant-rights groups in Los Angeles would support the type of profiling used in Phoenix.

Jose Robles, an official with the Roman Catholic Diocese of Phoenix, said he generally had a good impression of the way authorities there treated illegal immigrants. However, he said the airport enforcement seemed ripe for problems.

“The potential for abuse and profiling will always be there,” Robles said. “I’m waiting for them to stop me.”

Despite successes in Phoenix, immigrant smuggling continues to be a booming trade.

According to congressional testimony presented Tuesday by John P. Torres, deputy assistant director of smuggling and public safety for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, trafficking in people has reached global proportions with estimated profits of $9.5 billion a year.

Torres also testified that such operations have a symbiotic relationship with other criminal enterprises, with smuggling proceeds used to finance trafficking in arms and drugs, or laundered and invested in legitimate businesses.

Agents complain that smuggling networks have been highly mobile, quickly shifting their operations from “hot zones” like Arizona to regions with lighter immigration enforcement, such as California and Colorado.

Authorities say their response to smuggling is also complicated by policies such as the Los Angeles Police Department’s Special Order 40, which prohibits officers from informing federal immigration officials about any undocumented immigrants they discover during the course of their duties.

The purpose of the order is to ease fears that illegal immigrants might be detained or deported if they sought assistance from police.

Times staff writer Andrew Blankstein contributed to this report.


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