RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:
Federal officials described, in vivid detail, a major raid they carried out yesterday, against human traffickers in Phoenix. The Department of Homeland Security says shuttle van companies based in Arizona had been moving thousands of illegal immigrants, taking them from Mexico to points across the U.S. for years. Peter O'Dowd of member station KJZZ has this report.
PETER O: Federal officials say this was a sting for the record books. Forty-seven people are in custody. An AK47 and 40 vehicles were seized. John Morton, the assistant secretary for Homeland Security's Immigration and Customs Enforcement, says the agency has never made a bust this big.
JOHN MORTON: Five shuttle companies have been shutdown and multiple smuggling rings have been stopped in their tracks.
DOWD: The day started with up to 800 state and federal agents fanning out across four Arizona cities. Four of the shuttle companies were based in Tucson, another in Phoenix. Authorities say that for more than a decade the network allegedly smuggled immigrants from Mexico, Central America and even China into the U.S., where they boarded vans headed for the country's interior. Again, John Morton.
MORTON: The shuttle company would give the alien passenger a fake receipt for $30 to give the appearance of legitimacy. Once in Phoenix, time spent in drop or stash houses here, before being moved on yet again.
DOWD: Morton says those illegal immigrants eventually made their way to Los Angeles, Chicago and New York.
MORTON: This is not a mom and pops organization. It's major international crime occurring across borders with profits literally into the billions.
DOWD: This bust did not go over will with the state's immigrant community, where rumors of a raid had been circulating for several days. Ian Danley says that in Phoenix, the fear escalated when agents wearing black hoods swarmed into a shuttle company based in a predominantly Latino neighborhood. Danley is a youth pastor who works nearby.
IAN DANLEY: There was dozens of law enforcement officials all around. There was helicopters circling overhead. Neighbors were outside, filming. And I saw many in tears.
DOWD: It turns out the sting focused only on the smuggling operation, but advocates who were on hand at yesterday's announcement say they're worried about the long term effects. Delia Salvatierra is an immigration attorney in Phoenix.
DELIA SALVATIERRA: The Latino community decides everyday when they wake up, whether they're going to go to school, where they're going to go to work, how they're going to get there and if they're going to come home. And that's a common occurrence in this community. There's no surprises. This just makes it more alert today.
DOWD: The law would require police to check citizenship status if they suspect someone is in the country illegally. U.S. attorney Dennis Burke deflected criticism that yesterday's sting was tied to the legislature's action.
DENNIS BURKE: This is an investigation that's been going on for two years. The other activities that are occurring in the state of Arizona at the local level have no relation to this whatsoever.
DOWD: For NPR News, I'm Peter O'Dowd.
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