Travel Agencies Tied to Human Smuggling Ring

Prosecutors have indicted 16 people in Arizona on charges of smuggling illegal immigrants into the United States. Authorities say six Phoenix travel agencies were involved in helping to transport the human cargo.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Of course to use that strength, the illegal immigrants have to get where the jobs are and that in itself makes a huge industry made out of many small players.

NPR's Ted Robbins explains.

TED ROBBINS: When Arizona authorities learned of six Phoenix travel agencies that were helping transport thousands of illegal immigrants around the country, it wasn't hard to bust them using undercover officers.

Mr. TERRY GODDARD (Arizona Attorney General): You know, here's the cash, get me out of Las Vegas.

ROBBINS: Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard says illegal immigrants would be driven to Las Vegas because the airport there didn't check documents closely. Oh, and the travel agencies supplied those documents too.

Mr. GODDARD: They essentially assigned names at the travel agency for the people that they needed to transport, and in some cases actually provided the identification in those names.

ROBBINS: Sixteen people were indicted last week on human smuggling, fraudulent schemes and money laundering charges. Human smugglers find the weak points whether on the border or in this case Las Vegas and exploit the system. But David Kyle says the smuggling operations still tend to be relatively small. Kyle is a professor at the University of California at Davis who studies human smuggling.

Professor DAVID KYLE (Sociology, University of California Davis): They can be almost like a mom-and-pop operation. They tend to be related family members or neighbors with very close ties, high levels of trust.

ROBBINS: But Kyle says focusing on smuggling alone gives too narrow a picture. The smuggling industry wouldn't exist, he says, without legitimate businesses hiring illegal labor at low wages and consumers benefiting from that labor.

Ted Robbins, NPR News, Tucson.

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