In Arizona, a crackdown on smugglers' lairs

Targeting lairs for hiding illegal immigrants, law-enforcement officials claim strides in breaking up human-smuggling rings.

To combat the illicit business of smuggling people into the United States illegally, law-enforcement officials in Arizona are turning a sharper eye on the notorious drop house.

Since Saturday, raids on two drop houses – houses or apartments usually in Hispanic neighborhoods where coyotes, or smugglers, stash their human cargo until they collect their transport fees – netted 135 suspected illegal immigrants in a town southwest of Phoenix, according to police reports. They follow raids on 13 drop houses in the Phoenix area in February – the result of a seven-month probe that led to 48 indictments and the breakup of a human-smuggling ring.

Because metropolitan Phoenix is the largest transshipment hub for illegal immigrants in the United States, targeting drop houses is a key piece of an ongoing crackdown against the smuggling trade. Gov. Janet Napolitano (D), calling it a "savage industry," said in her January State of the State address that state law needs to be strengthened so that officials can prosecute both property owners and property managers who allow smugglers to use a dwelling as a drop house.

Though drop houses are one piece of a complicated smuggling network, targeting them is an important step – akin to confiscating the houses of convicted drug dealers, says Nestor Rodriguez, an immigration expert at the University of Houston, adding that such a crackdown is no substitute for overall immigration reform on the national level.

"Drop houses are significant in the smuggling process of migrants to this country," Dr. Rodriguez says. "The smuggling process occurs in steps … and a significant one is where they are placed until payments are made."

There may be as many as 1,000 drop houses in the greater Phoenix area, some officials estimate. Figures provided by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) are much lower, however, because the agency counts only drop houses identified through busts or arrests. For each of the past three years, according to ICE figures, the number of drop houses in the area has risen slightly. In fiscal year 2005, it identified 156 houses; in 2006, 160 houses; and in 2007, 163 houses. Numbers of suspected illegal immigrants apprehended at those houses likewise jumped from 2,610 in 2005 to 3,410 in 2006, before falling back to 3,106 last fiscal year.

This is ordinarily the season when officials see a spike in busts of drop houses and apprehensions of illegal immigrants stashed in them, as trafficking rises along with seasonal jobs in the US. But that hasn't been the case so far in 2008, says Alonzo Peña, special agent in charge of the ICE office in Arizona. Reasons could be Arizona's new employer-sanctions law, beefed-up apprehension efforts by law-enforcement agencies, or the overall lackluster economy, Mr. Peña says.

"We are starting to see change in the right direction," he says. "Fewer drop houses, fewer numbers of illegal immigrants in the drop houses. But what concerns us is the violence."

Anecdotal evidence points to more kidnapping and extortion cases here. The people operating drop houses are "just criminals," says Peña, and will commit almost any crime to make more money.

That's why the enhanced cooperation among federal, state, and local agencies is so important, he adds, pointing to the Feb. 14 indictment of 48 defendants in the breakup of a human-smuggling ring here.

Arizona's attorney general's office led that investigation, involving a smuggling ring that made about $130,000 a week ferrying thousands of illegal immigrants from Mexico to the Phoenix area, officials say. The Phoenix Police Department, Arizona Department of Public Safety, and ICE helped in the probe.

Peña says another vital tactic, one now getting more resources, is to seize the assets of drop-house owners. A problem, though, is that many drop houses are rentals. A bill wending its way through the state legislature would address that by allowing law-enforcement officials to go after property managers, not just owners. If enacted, it will make anyone providing services to illegal immigrants – "selling, leasing, renting or otherwise supplying of real property or motor vehicles" – a felony punishable by prison time.

"What the governor is doing – in the absence of federal action on immigration – is look at everything we can do at the state level to disrupt the trafficking," says Jeanine L'Ecuyer, spokeswoman for Governor Napolitano.

Arizona is also directing its state police force to provide drop-house data it collects to the state Department of Real Estate, so it can build a database to aid in future investigations, says Ms. L'Ecuyer. In addition, the state police and the real estate department are setting up a way to handle phone calls from residents who suspect a drop house is in their neighborhood.

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