Department of Homeland Security agents have arrested five men in connection with a human smuggling ring that allegedly brought Chinese citizens into Houston from the Dominican Republic and Bangkok, Thailand.
The arrests capped a more than 19-month undercover investigation into the smuggling operation, which operated primarily out of the Dominican Republic but also stretched into far east Asia, said Sean McElroy, assistant special agent in charge for Homeland Security Investigations in Houston.
HSI agents said the smuggling organization charged as much as $40,000 to come into the U.S. from Bangkok.
"We're looking at this as a threat to national security because they're smuggling individuals into this country, and we don't know who they are," McElroy said.
HSI agents made their first arrests in the case on Wednesday, taking into custody two alleged smugglers along with five illegal immigrants from China who were flown into Houston via Bangkok. The immigrants allegedly were escortedon the flight by 53-year-old Luis Guzman, a citizen of the Dominican Republic, and Junfei Lu, a 41-year-old Chinese citizen; both were arrested in Houston on a conspiracy charge.
Ying Chun Leung, another Chinese citizen, was arrested early Friday after his flight from the Dominican Republic landed at Miami International Airport, McElroy said.
"These individuals were pretty crafty, very well versed in international smuggling," McElroy said. "These are not first-time offenders. They have organizations set up in foreign countries to move people illegally using various methods."
The Chinese smuggling business has become increasingly lucrative in recent years, authorities said, with fees increasing from about $15,000 20 years ago to more than $60,000 in many cases.
Immigration authorities have reported an increase in the number of illegal immigrants from China caught while being smuggled into the U.S. in recent years from Central and South America, McElroy said. Steven Cribby, a U.S. Border Patrol spokesman, said Chinese illegal immigrant apprehensions along the Southwest border went from 837 in 2007 to 1,499 in the 2009 fiscal year, the most recent data available.
McElroy declined to say what specifically led investigators to target the organization in the Dominican Republic, which he described as an international hub for smugglers staging illegal immigrants bound for the U.S. He said most of the Chinese immigrants brought into the U.S. by the organization hailed from China's Fujian province, which has easy access to Bangkok, another popular staging point.
Sought bogus documents
The criminal complaint in the case details negotiations between smugglers and undercover agents, with fees in the range of $15,000 to $16,000 per person for trips from the Dominican Republic into the U.S, and about $40,000 from Bangkok.
The agents also alleged one of the smugglers requested fraudulent documents and agreed to pay an additional $40,000 for each green card.
In the criminal complaint, HSI identified Leung as a smuggler who first made contact with its undercover agent in March 2009 and agreed to smuggle two Chinese citizens from the Dominican Republic for $15,000 each.
Using fake travel documents supplied by the agent, the two Chinese flew into Miami in June 2009 and were taken to a Houston hotel by undercover officers. The immigrants eventually were picked up by two other defendants, Jian You Cao and Ke Kia Shi, both U.S. citizens.
Shi was taken into custody on Thursday and Cao surrendered to authorities in Houston on Friday, McElroy said.
Asked about green card
After the first smuggling venture, Leung allegedly made arrangements with the undercover agent to bring another illegal immigrant from China into the U.S. from the Dominican Republic in June.
According to the criminal complaint, the illegal immigrant was picked up in Houston by Lu, who assured an undercover agent "there was plenty of money to be made in the human smuggling business."
The agent also reported that Lu asked about smuggling Chinese into the U.S. from Bangkok, and talked about the cost of obtaining a green card, according to investigators.
In his first court appearance on Thursday in Houston, Lu protested in broken Spanish that he was "lied to," presumably by the undercover agent.
Cao was scheduled for an initial appearance before a magistrate on Monday, according to McElroy.
The other defendants were in federal custody and have court hearings scheduled for Wednesday. If convicted of the conspiracy charge, each faces up to 10 years in prison and a fine of $250,000.
McElroy said the agents' goal in the case was to infiltrate and dismantle the smuggling organization.
"If these guys are doing this with us, what are they doing with other people?" he said.
source: Houston Chronicle