NEW YORK -- The reputed mastermind of a migrant smuggling ring that allegedly smuggled hundreds of undocumented immigrants from Eastern Europe into the U.S. was arraigned on Saturday in federal court in Brooklyn after his extradition from Albania on Friday.
A 34-page federal indictment depicts Deme Nikqi, 53, of Kosovo, as the leader of an international criminal network dedicated to smuggling ethnic Albanians from the Balkans into the U.S. across the Mexican and Canadian borders using fraudulent passports and visas.
His arrest was the result of a joint investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Nikqi pleaded not guilty to all 28 felony counts.
The most serious criminal charge in the indictment stems from a fatal accident near the Mexican border in Feb. 2010, when a car carrying undocumented immigrants crashed while being pursued by the Texas Highway Patrol. Prosecutors allege that Nikqi was responsible for arranging for the group's transit across the border. Federal law allows a sentence of up to life in prison for traffickers found to be directly or indirectly responsible for the death of a migrant being smuggled across the border.
In court documents, Loretta E. Lynch, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York, said the alleged smuggling network exploited undocumented immigrants and exposed them to danger. According to Lynch, Nikqi charged Kosovars more than $15,000 for illegal transport to the U.S., including the production of fraudulent passports and visas.
Nikqi allegedly facilitated the transport of migrants overland through Central America and Mexico and then across the U.S. border, often hiding them in luggage compartments of buses and inside locked trailers with little or no food or water, prosecutors said.
Lynch added that Nikqi's alleged smuggling network not only placed migrants at risk, but represented a "grave threat to our nation's borders."
"Transnational smuggling organizations such as those headed by Deme Nikqi are rightly viewed as a threat to national security, and will be vigorously prosecuted," she said.
Lynch requested that Nikqi be denied bail, arguing that he represented an "extraordinary risk of flight."
"If anyone in the world could quickly and easily obtain a fake passport to flee the United States, it is Deme Nikqi," she said.
Judge Viktor V. Pohorelsky, of U.S. District Court in Brooklyn, agreed, ordering Nikqi detained until trial.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story mischaracterized the indictment against Deme Nikqi. He is charged with human smuggling, not human trafficking, a more serious offense that involves the exploitation of migrants after they have been smuggled into a country.
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