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Airline Faces Fines for Ferrying Illegals

Immigration: The INS had urged Qantas not to allow 17 Chinese nationals to board a flight to LAX. Airline may have to pay $56,100.

April 06, 2002|PATRICK J. McDONNELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Qantas Airlines faces a federal fine of more than $50,000 after failing to heed a U.S. law enforcement warning and allowing a group of 17 undocumented Chinese passengers to fly to Los Angeles this week from Australia, the Immigration and Naturalization Service said Friday.

The 17 Chinese nationals, who arrived Wednesday aboard Qantas Flight 93 from Melbourne, were among the largest groups smuggled into Los Angeles International Airport in recent years, officials said. All were taken into INS custody but are expected to apply for political asylum.

Their presence alarmed federal authorities as the migrants landed amid tightened airline security imposed after Sept. 11. The case also occurred at a time when concern is mounting that Asian-based smuggling syndicates may be turning anew to LAX and other major U.S. airports to try to bring in groups of illegal immigrants.

"That's both unusual and high these days," Michael Cronin, the agency's assistant commissioner for inspections in Washington, said of the 17 smuggled Chinese.

FOR THE RECORD
Los Angeles Times Friday April 19, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 A2 Desk 3 inches; 72 words Type of Material: Correction
INS and Qantas--A story in the April 6 California section incorrectly stated that the Immigration and Naturalization Service notified Qantas Airlines a week in advance that 17 Chinese passengers lacking proper paperwork to enter the United States might be arriving on a flight to Los Angeles International Airport. The INS says it was mistaken and that the airline was actually notified only one day in advance, on April 2. Qantas denies wrongdoing in the case and is fighting a proposed federal fine of $56,100.

Also dismaying, several officials said, is the likelihood that the suspected smuggler--a U.S. passport-holder who is believed to have accompanied the group from Melbourne--managed to escape. Authorities said the group is likely part of a larger trafficking ring bringing in people from southern China's Fujian province, a major source of illegal immigrants. The 17 may have been in Australia for two weeks before heading to Los Angeles, one official said.

Smuggled Chinese often pay $35,000 or more to be slipped into the United States, officials say. Once here, they often spend years working off the debt in virtual bondage, as factory hands, cooks, prostitutes or in other jobs.

Airlines are required to review the documentation of all U.S.-bound passengers. Federal law subjects carriers to fines of $3,300 for each arriving passenger lacking visas or other required paperwork. The INS has moved to fine Qantas the maximum, $56,100, said Francisco Arcaute, an INS spokesman in Los Angeles.

In the Qantas case, the INS said officers examining airline passenger data became suspicious a week before the flight left Australia, in part because of the size of the group. U.S. authorities alerted the airline and gave a "strong recommendation" that the group not be allowed to board, said the INS spokesman. The passengers are believed to have destroyed or hidden their passports after checking in for the flight.

Airline officials deny any wrongdoing and plan to appeal, said Steve Kernaghan, a spokesman for Qantas, which has four nonstop flights daily from Australia to LAX, its principal U.S. port of arrival.

In a statement, Bryan Banston, a Qantas senior vice president, said that all paperwork is verified closely and that the airline "adheres to rigorous security and procedural protocols in checking and boarding passengers."

U.S. officials worry about a return of the large-scale smuggling of Chinese and other Asians--especially via LAX and New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport--that prompted a major crackdown a decade ago.

Typically, smuggled passengers destroyed their passports after boarding U.S.-bound aircraft, thus erasing evidence of phony documents that could subject them to criminal prosecution. Many applied for political asylum upon arriving in the United States, posted bonds to get out of detention and then disappeared.

In response, federal authorities tightened asylum rules, expanded detention space and began holding suspected fraudulent asylum applicants until they could be deported. In addition, the INS began to work closely with airlines to identify smuggled groups before they boarded aircraft.

As a result, officials say, the number of foreign nationals arriving at U.S. airports lacking proper documents has dropped substantially.

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