A July 15 article about increased efforts to crack down on smuggling of illegal immigrants through airports inaccurately said that federal law requires passengers to present a government-issued identification card to board a flight in the United States. Federal law does not require the ID card, but many airlines ask to see one. (Published 9/3/04)
Federal agents are patrolling terminals at Los Angeles International Airport in a new effort to crack down on smugglers who have been routing illegal immigrants through major airports in recent months, the Department of Homeland Security said yesterday.
Officials at the department's Immigration and Customs Enforcement division said they are responding to new tactics used by sophisticated smugglers who collect big fees to bring people into the country illegally. Officials say smugglers are now bringing migrants across the Mexican border by land through Arizona, then booking them on low-fare airline flights from Los Angeles and other major airports to destinations elsewhere in the country, including the Washington area.
In April, 13 migrants were arrested at Baltimore-Washington International Airport after Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents learned they were smuggled onto a flight from Los Angeles. The same month, 88 migrants on a Continental Airlines flight from Los Angeles were arrested in Newark, N.J. Authorities also said there have been several arrests at Los Angeles International's Terminal 1, where Southwest Airlines is stationed.
"Obviously, [the smugglers] look at it from a cost-benefit risk standpoint," said Asa Hutchinson, undersecretary for Homeland Security's Border and Transportation Security unit. "If you look at [land] transportation costs from the Southwest border to Newark, N.J., or North Carolina or a whole host of other places, and you compare it with the cost of discounted airfares, just like other air passengers, they are going to make those decisions."
Most of the migrants have traveled on domestic flights out of large airports in Los Angeles, Seattle, Phoenix and Las Vegas, officials said. Federal law requires only a government-issued identification card to board a flight within the country. That can include a document from another country, such as a driver's license, and the documents are not checked by customs agents. Homeland Security officials said the problem is concentrated at airports in the West, although many of the flights carrying smuggled migrants are headed to the East Coast.
Officials at Washington area airports said they are not aware of any recent increase in the number of people detained by federal agents as part of human smuggling rings.
The agents at Los Angeles International, some in plain clothes and others in uniform, are expanding a program that officials say already has proved successful at major airports in Phoenix and Las Vegas. Persons familiar with the new effort, who declined to speak publicly about the methods used, say agents walk the terminals looking for suspicious behavior and requesting identification from those they believe may be connected to a smuggling ring.
The National Council of La Raza, a civil rights organizations that advocates for Latinos, said immigration agents have been conducting sweeps of bus and train stations in Southern California in the last month, questioning passengers and asking for identification documents to prove they are legal citizens.
The airport initiative sounds similar, said Cecilia Munoz, La Raza's vice president for policy. "It would be so much more heartening, especially to the Latino community, if the bulk of the activity were on the smugglers themselves and not the people being smuggled," she said.
Hutchinson said agents are trained not to conduct ethnic profiling, and are acting on specific intelligence about smuggling operations. "We're not going for everyone, checking their papers," he said.
Steven Camarota, director of research at the Center for Immigration Studies, a nonprofit group that supports immigration enforcement, said the government should require passports from all nonresidents boarding domestic flights. "It's not reasonable for a person from Des Moines to know what a Mexican driver's license looks like," Camarota said.