Immigration officials yesterday said they had identified companies they believe were planning to hire the 40 suspected illegal aliens discovered crammed into a rental truck Wednesday night after an accident at the Bay Bridge.
No federal charges have been filed in the case, and officials would not identify the suspect companies or the type of businesses, saying only that they were on the Maryland or Delaware Eastern shores.
"It's an organized smuggling ring that's involved," said Ben Ferro, district director of the Immigration and Naturalization Service. "These things aren't done without prescreening individuals and the likelihood of involvement from an employer."
The truck passengers -- Mexican and Guatemalan nationals -- apparently left Arizona shortly after entering the United States and boarding a Ryder truck, which was rented Monday in Phoenix, investigators said. Many of the passengers were ill-dressed for cold weather. Investigators said the 15-foot-long truck was filthy, containing jugs of urine and bags of feces.
Although the INS released no details about the prospective employers, the truck's apparent destination raised speculation that the workers may have been headed for jobs in the poultry industry, where most illegal-alien arrests occur on the Eastern Shore.
The INS makes 50 or more such arrests on the Eastern Shore each year. Officials estimate that more than half of those involve illegal aliens employed in the poultry industry.
"I think it's fair to say we have historically focused on the poultry industry because it's where we have found a high percentage of violations," Mr. Ferro said.
"Part of the reason for that is it's not the easiest or nicest work," said Lou Nardi, head of INS investigations in Maryland.
In a raid on the Eastern Shore in July, the INS arrested more than 80 illegal aliens employed by several poultry processing companies.
People on the truck who are not facing criminal charges or not needed as witnesses will be returned home "as expeditiously as possible," although there is no clear timetable, Mr. Ferro said. "We've had the cooperation of both the Mexican and Guatemalan embassies."
Those detained include 21 Guatemalan and 19 Mexican nationals.
Officials yesterday said they had determined that five of the passengers were juveniles, one of them a girl. They were moved yesterday to a youth detention facility in Lehigh, Pa. The adults are being held at Howard County and Wicomico County detention centers.