- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 12, 2004

PHOENIX (AP) — Law-enforcement officials in the Phoenix area are using new tactics to cut off illegal immigration by going after used-car salesmen who sell vehicles to smugglers and by arresting operators of safe houses where immigrants stay after crossing the border.

Unlike past crackdowns, which have focused on stopping immigrants at the border, immigration officials say the new campaign frustrates smugglers by zeroing in on the tools of their trade.

And so far, they say, it seems to be working in Phoenix, the nation’s hub for transporting illegal workers throughout the country.

“Now, we really are bringing the focus on putting the organizations out of business through arresting, prosecuting and convicting the controls people,” said Mike Turner, who heads the Immigration and Customs Enforcement office in Phoenix. “The endgame is putting the organizational leaders in jail.”

Smugglers, also known as “coyotes,” typically charge thousands of dollars per person to sneak immigrants across the border, either by foot or hidden in vehicles. Once across, many are taken to hiding places known as “drop houses,” where they often stay for months before fanning out across the country to look for work.

For years, many smugglers stole cars to carry migrants from the border to the Phoenix area. But recently, used-car salesmen began selling cars to smugglers with fake liens and names on the titles, so if the car is seized near the border, it reverts to the dealer.

The dealers then resell the car to the smugglers, a practice that has allowed many dealers to increase their revenue fivefold, said Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard. Police said they were tipped off to the scheme by a tow-truck operator.

Nearly two dozen used-car lot workers in the Phoenix area recently were indicted on charges of forgery and money laundering. Police also seized 11 car lots and 400 vehicles.

“A really critical link has been broken,” Mr. Goddard said.

Also in the past year, immigration authorities arrested 282 persons and charged most of them with alien smuggling by operating drop houses in and around Phoenix.

The Phoenix metropolitan area became a hotbed of drop houses partly because it was so easy for smuggling operations to blend into largely Spanish-speaking neighborhoods.

Mr. Turner said immigration agents did not put an emphasis on the drop-house operators in the past, which frustrated local officials who were left to deal with the problem.

Police think the number of drop houses has decreased sharply since the crackdown began. Some smugglers still use Phoenix as a base of operations, but authorities think many have moved elsewhere, including Los Angeles, Houston, Las Vegas and rural communities in Arizona.

Some say although the new tactic might be effective in Phoenix, it does not confront the larger problem.

“It’s going to be a short-lived celebration, because you will start to see the manifestation of the broken system in other places,” said Angela Kelley, deputy director of the pro-immigrant group National Immigration Forum.

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