updated 10/12/2004 5:42:46 PM ET 2004-10-12T21:42:46

Law enforcement officials in the Phoenix area are using new tactics to cut off illegal immigration: They are going after used-car salespeople who sell vehicles to smugglers and arresting operators of safe houses where immigrants stay after crossing the border.

Immigration officials say that, unlike past crackdowns, which have focused more on stopping immigrants at the border, 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 end game is putting the organizational leaders in jail.”

Informer blows the cover
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 salespeople began selling cars to smugglers with fake liens and names on the titles, so if the car was seized near the border, it reverted to the dealer.

The dealers then resell the car back to the smugglers, a practice that has allowed many to increase their revenue fivefold, Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard said. 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 were recently indicted on charges of forgery and money laundering. Police also seized 11 car lots and 400 vehicles.

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

Phoenix: center of activity
Also in the past year, immigration authorities arrested 282 people and charged most of them with alien smuggling for allegedly 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.

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

Some say that while the new tactic may 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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