'Safe House' Prosecution Falls Apart

Many illegal immigrants detained in a Watts raid last month have been let go or fear retaliation.

From LA Times

May 20, 2004

Nearly a month after authorities discovered 110 illegal immigrants held in a so-called safe house in Watts, federal officials have been unable to build a case against the alleged smugglers.

Because of a shortage of detention space, all but a few of the 88 immigrants apprehended have been released from custody. Some of the immigrants refused to cooperate with investigators out of fear the smugglers might take revenge on them or their families, officials said.

Federal prosecutors ultimately dropped smuggling charges against the three alleged "coyotes," because the government did not comply with a judge's order to make the immigrants available to defense attorneys.

Federal officials said they could not meet the judge's demand because they were overwhelmed by the number migrants recovered from the house and could not process them through the system within the 48 hours required by the law.

"It just wasn't so easy," said Virginia Kice, a spokeswoman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Immigration officials generally detain illegal immigrants with serious felony records until their deportation hearings. But immigrants detained in sweeps such as the Watts raid are routinely released on bond with a notice to appear at a future deportation hearing.

According to federal statistics, half of all such detainees released in this manner fail to show up for the court proceedings. This often makes it harder for officials to prosecute the smugglers.

Nearly all of the agency's 1,600 beds in Los Angeles are occupied by "mandated holds" illegal immigrants being held because they have a criminal history or have been deemed a danger to society. That leaves little room to hold immigrants found in human smuggling busts until it is determined whether they should be deported.

This was the problem when officials raided the Watts safe house April 21.

"We were basically maxed out," Kice said. "When we get such a huge influx of people in the course of a few hours it tests our resources."

Kice said prosecutors are still trying to build a smuggling case against the three suspects, who remain in jail because they are illegal immigrants who qualify for "mandated holds."

But Los Angeles City Councilwoman Janice Hahn, whose district includes Watts, criticized the immigration agency for not investing enough resources to combat human smuggling. Failing to hold the immigrants so that they can testify against the smugglers simply allows the problem to continue, she said.

"Here's an issue that horrified all of us 110 people living in a hostage situation and we can't get who's responsible for this," Hahn said. "What this proves is that [smugglers] can make money off of this and get away with it."

Southern California has seen an increase in human smuggling cases in recent months as federal officials have cracked down on the practice in Arizona. In the Watts case, the immigrants were being held against their will by smugglers after a long journey.

The captives including some children were smuggled into the United States from Ecuador, Mexico, Guatemala and El Salvador and were apparently bound for the East Coast. The smugglers had planned to hold the illegal immigrants until family members made payments of up to $9,000 each. Once the money was paid, the immigrants would have been taken to Los Angeles International Airport for flights east.

On Monday night, about 90 immigrants, also bound for the East Coast, were found in a so-called safe house in Canoga Park.

Kice said that the Canoga Park case, though almost as large as the Watts operation, is going much more smoothly and that the immigrants are being more cooperative. Prosecutors on Wednesday filed smuggling charges against seven suspects in that case.

In an effort to combat human smuggling locally, immigration officials are considering an increase in monitoring at LAX.

They hope to replicate the successful effort to reduce smuggling in Arizona.

Phoenix's Sky Harbor Airport was once a key transport center for illegal immigrants smuggled through Latin America and by air to the East Coast. But officials have posted Border Patrol agents around the airport on the lookout for illegal immigrants.