A smuggling ring specializing in bringing Iranians into the U.S. over the Mexico border has been broken up in an FBI sting operation.
A 39-year-old Iranian with permanent legal residency status who is suspected of having smuggled 60 other Iranians into the U.S. was arrested Thursday in Mesa, Ariz., according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
At his arraignment yesterday, Zeayadali Malhamdary, who owns a tailoring business, pleaded not guilty. He faces a detention hearing tomorrow.
Iran has long been designated a terrorist state by the U.S. State Department and FBI.
The FBI began investigating Malhamdary after a source told immigration officials that Malhamdary had sought help getting false Mexican visas so he could bring Iranians into Mexico and then across the border into Arizona.
The source also told investigators that Malhamdary had asked for help bringing his sister into the United States. According to the probable cause statement by FBI Agent Aaron Kellerman, the source didn’t help him, but the sister did arrive in Arizona.
Federal prosecutors say Malhamdary had previously smuggled about 60 Iranians into the United States.
Malhamdary flew to Tehran, Iran, in March, allegedly to get the passports of the Iranians he planned to smuggle into the United States through Mexico, Kellerman said in the statement.
In late March, the undercover agent was given three passports.
Malhamdary allegedly told the undercover agent in May that he had eight more people who wanted to be smuggled into the United States.
The undercover agent on Thursday met with Malhamdary and agreed to pick up three Iranians in Mexico City and then to bring them to Nogales, Mexico, and arrange to have them smuggled across the border, Kellerman said in his statement.
When he was arrested, Malhamdary allegedly told investigators that he wanted to bring Iranians into the United States so they could seek refugee status. No one answered the phone at his tailoring business yesterday afternoon.
If convicted of the three attempted smuggling charges, Malhamdary could face up to 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine on each of the counts.
FBI officials said they had no reason to believe there were any terrorist connections to the case.