and BENJAMIN SPILLMAN
Until they began patrolling this week, U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents hadn't had a presence at McCarran International Airport for at least five years.
In that time, the airport became a hub for illegal immigrants heading to their final destinations throughout the country after they crossed the border, said Lloyd Easterling, supervisory agent with U.S. Customs and Border Protection's Yuma sector, which includes Nevada and parts of Arizona and California.
In less than a week, a dozen agents nabbed about 200 illegal immigrants, all of them Hispanic, at the airport, he said.
The sweep was over Thursday, but agents said they probably will return to McCarran periodically.
McCarran, which sees more than 45 million people pass through it annually, bustled as usual Thursday afternoon. Tourists and locals waited at baggage claim. Most of the travelers were unaware that Border Patrol agents had been at the airport looking for and detaining illegal immigrants.
Some U.S. citizens of Hispanic descent said the presence of the agents would make them uncomfortable.
"I would get offended if they asked me," said 21-year-old Cindy Viramontes.
Viramontes, born in Lake Havasu, Ariz., is of Mexican descent. She was bothered that only Hispanics were taken into custody. In her mind that meant one thing: racial profiling.
"I don't think it's right that they can go up to any random person who looks Mexican and question them," she said.
Easterling defended the agency's methods.
"There is no issue with just walking up and talking to people," he said.
In those conversations, agents can pick up signs that would cause concern, he said.
Agents look for people whose manner is nervous or confused. Clothing and hygiene also will spark curiosity.
"For example, if the clothes they are wearing are dirty, like they haven't been changed for days or they have cactus needles sticking out," Easterling said.
Gary Peck, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada, said Viramontes and others have a right to be concerned.
Peck said he is not convinced the agency's methods won't lead to racial profiling. He said law enforcement agencies use such a "scattershot and hodgepodge" of characteristics to identify an illegal immigrant that they can potentially justify stopping anyone.
While all those taken into custody the past few days are from Mexico and Central American countries, Easterling said, future sweeps might find illegal immigrants from all over the world.
The agents are not imposing on civil liberties, Easterling added.
"If there is a suspicion you shouldn't be here, our job is to find that out," he said
The patrols also are looking for terrorism suspects and narcotics traffickers.
Carlo Morales, 35, was at McCarran waiting to begin his weekend vacation. When he was told about the Border Patrol, he said he would have no problem with them as long as they were polite.
"I'm Mexican," Morales said in Spanish. "I would tell them that I'm a tourist."
He said customs' officials had been courteous during his dozens of trips to the United States.
Genuine travelers from Mexico won't be swept up in immigration busts at McCarran because they would have certain documentation, according to a national travel group.
"As long as someone is legitimate, they have the right paperwork, they will be admitted," said Rick Webster, vice president of government affairs for the Travel Industry Association.
Webster said Mexican travelers have long been required to carry documentation to distinguish them from being mistaken for an undocumented person looking for work or committing a crime.
Las Vegas attracts about 390,000 Mexican visitors annually through the air, according to the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority.
Foreign travelers represented about 12 percent of the 38.5 million people who visited Las Vegas in 2005. Most, about 1.8 million, come from Canada. The United Kingdom is second at 439,000.
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