An ongoing investigation into the transporting of illegal immigrants through Los Angeles International Airport has expanded to include surveillance of several "drop houses" where outbound immigrants are apparently piling up as their smugglers scramble for alternatives to deliver them to their destinations in the East, immigration officials said Friday.
The recent Immigration and Naturalization Service crackdown on the smuggling of aliens aboard commercial airliners netted another 40 arrests at the airport Thursday night, bringing the week's total of aliens arrested at airports throughout the country to 246.
Unlike INS operations early in the week, which resulted in the arrests of as many as 79 illegal immigrants traveling together on a single flight out of Los Angeles, the most recent arrests were of groups of two or thee aliens scheduled on separate flights, INS Los Angeles District Director Ernest Gustafson said. INS agents fanned out across the airport's seven passenger terminals, arresting 27 Mexicans and 13 Central and South Americans.
Gustafson said that the stepped-up enforcement at the airport has led smugglers to slow down their operations and "test the waters" with small groups of aliens, who he referred to as "sacrificial lambs."
Gustafson said the smuggling that has been uncovered at the airport is made up of a number of small operations rather than one large network.
"Sometimes the smugglers end up stumbling over each other in airports across the nation, where one doesn't know the other is a smuggler," he said.
He said that because of the increased enforcement, aliens are "backing up at the drop houses," crowded homes where smugglers drop off recently arrived immigrants to await the next leg in their journeys. Some are being transported by car or bus out of the area to other airports, apparently to catch alternative flights to their destinations, he said.
INS investigators in Los Angeles are keeping watch over "a couple" of the drop houses, gathering enough evidence to raid them, Gustafson said. "We want to catch those crooks."
Gustafson estimated that at any given time there are between 30 and 40 such drop houses in operation in the Los Angeles area.
Gustafson said he does not believe that the increased arrests at the airport signal that Los Angeles is becoming a less popular destination for illegal immigrants. Most of the aliens apprehended at the airport had only recently crossed into the United States and were passing through Los Angeles, on their way to join relatives and friends who had settled in other parts of the country, he said.