By JAYSON JACOBY
Of the Baker City Herald
Federal officials arrested seven people in Baker City Wednesday in connection with what the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service is calling the largest immigrant smuggling ring ever in Oregon.
The undercover sting took down an operation in which hundreds of illegal aliens from Mexico may have obtained identification cards from the local DMV office.
The two suspected ringleaders, Marzo Meraz-Jimenez, 22, and Sergio Guerra-Lopez, 30, are Mexican nationals who were living in Las Vegas, said Anthony Ho, assistant district director for investigations at the INS office in Portland.
Ho said the two men apparently were charging illegal aliens as much as $600 for the service.
Heres how federal officials believe the operation worked:
Meraz-Jimenez and Guerra-Lopez drove illegal aliens from Las Vegas to Baker City in a large van.
The illegal immigrants obtained an identification card from the DMV office here, then returned to Nevada.
The immigrants can exchange the Oregon card for identification in any other state, Ho said. They apparently used those permits to obtain work in other states, although not in Oregon, he said.
Oregon has fairly easy rules for obtaining identification, Ho said. Thats why they came into Oregon.
INS officials began investigating the ring operating in Baker City about four months ago, Ho said.
They received tips from several sources, including employees from the Baker City DMV office and the Oregon State Police.
As many as 80 illegal aliens were visiting the DMV office each month, Ho said.
A total of 18 INS officers from the Portland and Medford offices participated in Wednesdays bust, he said.
They stopped a van, which had Nevada license plates, on Interstate 84 after watching the van drive away from the DMV office on Broadway Street, Ho said.
In addition to Meraz-Jimenez and Guerra-Lopez, INS officers arrested five illegal immigrants who had obtained drivers permits from the DMV office.
The vans two other passengers were legal Mexican tourists; they were not charged.
Ho said he didnt know why they were riding with the illegal immigrants.
None of the passengers resisted arrest, he said. All the suspects were taken to Portland, where the case will be taken to the U.S. Attorneys office for possible prosecution.
Ho said INS officials believe there are several similar smuggling rings operating in the West.
We believe this ring, and others like it, are responsible for bringing hundreds of undocumented aliens into Oregon to obtain false identification, he said.
Ho said that in addition to the tips his office received from local DMV and State Police sources, special agents in other states had been investigating allegations about a rash of cases involving illegal aliens trying to exchange Oregon ID cards for identification in other states.
Employees from the Nevada Department of Motor Vehicles, for example, had reported busloads of people coming to offices trying to exchange Oregon drivers permits.