- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 10, 2005

Federal authorities have accused 13 Arizona motel owners of harboring illegal aliens brought by smugglers into the United States and will seek to seize their businesses as part of a nationwide investigation into a network of hotels and motels being used as “stash houses.”

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) spokesman Dean Boyd said indictments charging the owners of six motels in Mesa, Ariz., were unsealed yesterday after a nine-month undercover investigation, accusing them of harboring illegal aliens and of facilitating organized human smuggling.

Twelve of those named in the indictments have been arrested, said Mr. Boyd, who described the owners as ethnic Indians. He said eight of those charged were identified as U.S. citizens, while five others were listed as citizens of Britain now in the United States on green cards.

“Human smuggling is a ruthless criminal enterprise that puts the safety of our communities and even our country at risk,” said ICE Special Agent-in-Charge Roberto G. Medina, who heads the agency’s office of investigations in Arizona.

“Businesses like these that collude with human smugglers bear a substantial responsibility for the violence and bloodshed that this illicit trade generates.”

Law-enforcement authorities said the stash houses, also known as “safe houses” and “drop houses,” are locations used temporarily to shelter illegal aliens after they cross into the United States and before they are transported for a fee to locations throughout the country.

The authorities said the property owners or managers are paid by the smugglers, or “coyotes,” to harbor the illegals, who often are packed into houses, apartments, hotels and motel rooms — some of which lack electricity, water and proper sanitary facilities.

According to the indictments, the motel owners rented rooms on numerous occasions to undercover ICE agents posing as alien smugglers, with some motel owners charging the undercover agents higher rates than they would charge their ordinary customers. The indictments said the owners coached the undercover agents on ways to conceal their smuggling activities, advising them to register under false names, rent multiple rooms, and park their vehicles in places that would avoid attracting attention.

U.S. Attorney Paul K. Charlton in Arizona, whose office will prosecute the case, said the investigation demonstrated the extent to which the illegal-alien-smuggling industry has infiltrated and infected legitimate businesses.

“Unfortunately, it would appear that the potential for large profits has caused some business owners to not only turn a blind eye to illegal activity, but as these indictments indicate, in many instances to be complicit in their commission,” Mr. Charlton said, adding that his office would seek forfeiture of the properties.

ICE agents, assisted by officers from the Mesa Police Department, executed search warrants on the businesses and arrested 12 of the motel owners. Another owner, Roshankumar Bharatbhai Bhakta, 20, has been declared a fugitive and is being sought. Each of those arrested was charged with one count of conspiring to harbor illegal aliens, an offense that carries a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

Mr. Boyd said targeting the monetary assets of those involved in human smuggling is a key facet of ICE’s strategy to combat dangerous criminal activity. In 2004, he said, ICE seized more than $7 million nationwide from organizations involved in human smuggling and human trafficking. This year, he said, that amount more than tripled to nearly $27 million.

The Arizona probe began in February after ICE received several leads from the public on possible alien-smuggling activity at the motels.

Those arrested were Bharatbhai Ranchhodbhai Bhakta, 52; Madhuben Bharatbhai Bhakta, 53; Ashok Ratanji Patel, 52; Amarkumar Patel, 23; Anand Bhika Bhakta, 34; Sunita Bhakta, 36; Babulal Mithalbhai Patel, 52; Gitaben Babulal Patel, 46; Pravinkumar Vanmalibhai Patel, 45; Sheilaben Pravinkumar Patel, 45; Bhupendra Dahyabhia Patel, 51; and Madhuben Patel, 50.

Earlier this year, ICE agents arrested and later deported 39 illegal aliens who were taken into custody after being discovered at a Las Cruces, N.M., motel. The 30 men, five women and four children were located inside four rooms at the motel. The aliens each had paid their smuggler between $1,800 and $2,100 to be brought into the United States.

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