LAS VEGAS - Federal agents have made more than 2,700 arrests at the Las Vegas and Phoenix airports in the first month of a crackdown targeting those who smuggle illegal immigrants into the United States and put them on planes to other U.S. cities.
Despite the arrests, the airports remain a popular route for smugglers, agents said. The number of arrests at McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas has not declined, said Marc Sanders, assistant officer in charge of the Immigration and Naturalization Service's Las Vegas field office.
''I didn't expect at this stage of the game we would still have so many people loading on at McCarran,'' he told the Las Vegas Review-Journal.
Other law enforcement agencies, however, report a growing number of smuggling-related arrests on highways around the Southwest, suggesting that at least some have taken to the ground to elude capture.
The INS began Operation Denial in early August when it beefed up its Las Vegas and Phoenix staffs and began around-the-clock surveillance at the cities' airports.
So far, the project has resulted in 1,194 arrests in Nevada and 1,544 in Arizona. Most are migrant workers who will be returned to their home countries. But the INS has netted at least a few smugglers, resulting in 29 prosecutions, Sanders said.
He said both McCarran and Sky Harbor International Airport in Phoenix were being used frequently by smugglers who sneaked migrant workers in search of jobs across the U.S. border from Mexico and put them on planes to other parts of the country. Chicago and New York City are among the most popular destinations.
Other arrests are being made on roads by police doing traffic stops and raids on ''drop houses'' in Arizona, which can house up to 100 migrant workers in squalid conditions. The homes are used by the smugglers to warehouse people until transportation to their jobs is found, he said.
Illegal aliens pay smugglers as much as $1,500 for the journey from Mexico and often remain in debt as they work in the United States. There also have been reports of smugglers killing, torturing and raping their customers.
By looking for patterns of behavior such as large-volume ticket purchases and people boarding flights just before takeoff, Sanders said agents can identify likely people-smugglers.
The American Civil Liberties Union fears INS agents may be profiling travelers by their race, and a local Hispanic advocacy group is opposed to the operation. Sanders said agents were looking for patterns of behavior and not for any particular race.
No date has been set for the end of Operation Denial.