PHOENIX - An immigration service crackdown focusing on airports and immigrant ''drophouses'' in Phoenix and Las Vegas has led to the arrest of 15 suspected smugglers and the capture of more than 1,000 illegal immigrants, officials said Friday.
Immigration and Naturalization Service agents began round-the-clock surveillance two weeks ago at Phoenix's Sky Harbor International Airport and Las Vegas' McCarran International Airport to counter smuggling networks that use airlines to send immigrants to the East and Midwest.
Since then, officials have noticed a decline in illegal immigrants trying to go through both airports and an increase in the numbers traveling by car through Colorado, said Russell Ahr, an assistant to the director of the Phoenix INS district, which covers Arizona and Nevada. Some may also eventually choose to head to Los Angles to fly from there.
''We know that's a result of what we're doing here in Phoenix,'' Ahr said.
Since the operation began Aug. 9, INS agents caught 524 illegal immigrants at Sky Harbor, 690 at McCarran and 238 more at eight drophouses in the Phoenix area. The drophouses are staging areas where smugglers gather immigrants until they pay to be moved on.
''Unless that money comes, those people aren't going to go anywhere,'' Ahr said.
He said most of those caught were Mexicans who have since been returned to Mexico. About 20 have been kept here as witnesses. The smugglers are in federal custody.
The crackdown, dubbed Operation Denial, will continue at least through September and is intended to disrupt and dismantle smuggling operations throughout the area.
Some human rights groups have complained, however, that it will not solve the problem but only cause increased racial profiling of innocent travelers.
The operation is just the most recent attempt by the federal government to counter illegal immigration through Arizona, which has become one of the hottest crossing points in the nation.
The U.S. Border Patrol has also flooded the Arizona-Mexico border with agents to funnel would-be immigrants away from developed areas in the hopes that rugged desert terrain will discourage them from trying to cross and make them easier to catch.