Last week, at the Border Patrol checkpoint near San Clemente, U.S. immigration agents stopped a $65,000, silver-colored stretch Lincoln-Continental limousine with tinted windows. In the back, behind the dark partition separating the passengers from the driver, they found nine illegal aliens.
The driver, Dan Arazi, 45, of Encino, was arrested Monday on charges of smuggling, and immigration officials, who've seen no end to the ingenious methods used to sneak aliens across the border, added yet another technique to their list.
And while Border Patrol and Immigration and Naturalization Service officials were highlighting the limousine-connected arrests at a Saturday press conference concerning alien smuggling, Morris Grand, owner of Grand Limousine Service, was crying foul.
"We've been burned. We never had any intention of doing something like this," Grand said Saturday from his company's Van Nuys office. "We've been in the transportation business for 22 years and in the limo service since 1978. This is one horrendous problem, and it's all my fault."
According to Grand, a man named Joe Hernandez, who had used the limousine service by himself once before, arranged to use the nine-passenger limousine again. Grand's driver picked up Hernandez in Whittier. "He said we had to pick up some family members in San Diego for a big family reunion in L.A.," Grand said. "That's no big deal; we've dealt with this sort of thing before."
Once in San Diego, the driver was directed to a home on 41st Street in the Southeast district. "The guy got out and told my driver to wait in the car. He came out 5 or 10 minutes later and started talking to my driver," Grand said. Meanwhile, the nine passengers were piling into the back end.
Hernandez told the driver to keep the double partition up throughout the trip to Los Angeles. He also said that because there were more people than he had expected, the rest of the family would follow in a Cadillac behind the limousine, according to Grand.
"At the checkpoint," Grand said, "they stop the limo and arrest my guy while the Cadillac goes on through."
Grand says he's already spent close to $10,000 to bail out his driver and provide him with a lawyer. And his limo, part of a six-car fleet, remains impounded by the INS as evidence. "We're not a big company. We can't take the loss of a limo that brings in $300 to $400 day."
Harold Ezell, INS regional commissioner, said Saturday that the nine illegal aliens arrested in the limousine paid a smuggler from $300 to $400 each for the trip to Los Angeles. Allen Eliason, chief patrol agent for the Border Patrol in the San Diego area, said immigration officials are investigating Grand's Limousine Service as a result of the arrests but have made no determination whether the company was duped or not.
Ezell and Eliason said smuggling appears to be on the increase. On Thursday night, a bus carrying 42 illegal aliens was stopped shortly after it crossed the border east of the Otay Mesa border crossing in San Diego.
The bus, which officials believe belongs to a church though they haven't been able to confirm that, crossed at a point where only a cable separates Mexico and the United States. "They cut the cable and they were on their way to Los Angeles," Eliason said.
Immigration officials held a Saturday press conference to highlight the variety of smuggling techniques used recently and to call attention to the general problem of illegal immigration.
After the press conference, Eliason said the Border Patrol has noted an increase in the number of stolen vehicles--mainly vans, station wagons and big cars--used by smugglers. "We recorded 50 stolen vehicles in January. As of (Feb. 21), we had 55."
The capture of illegal aliens along the San Diego section of the Mexican border is still occurring at a record-breaking pace, Eliason said. In January, he noted, 53,800 illegal aliens were apprehended, a record for a single month.
"This month we're running at about 1,900 arrests a day, and that will have us topping 50,000 in February," Eliason said.