By Ian Simpson
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. immigration agents have arrested 163 suspected smugglers of aliens on the Mexican border, authorities said on Friday, as the United States grapples with a flood of children crossing the border.
The human smugglers were arrested in a month-long operation by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents that ended on May 31, the agency said in a statement.
"Unfortunately, desperate people continue to place their lives in the hands of these smugglers who have no regard for human life," said ICE Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary Thomas Winkowski.
The operation's major effort was focused on south Texas because of significant human smuggling along the state's Rio Grande Valley, the statement said.
Agents with ICE's Homeland Security Investigations unit made 163 arrests and obtained 60 indictments and 45 convictions. They seized 29 vehicles, nine firearms and more than $35,000 in ill-gotten proceeds, it said.
News of the arrests comes as the United States is trying to stem a flood of unaccompanied children crossing the border with Mexico.
Between October and May, more than 47,000 unaccompanied minors have come across the border, nearly double the number in the previous 12 months, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said on Thursday.
U.S. officials say most of the children are from Central America and are fleeing poverty and gang violence in the region. The U.S. government is making available facilities, including three military bases, to house the children.
Johnson sought to dispel any notion that children might qualify to stay in the United States as part of immigration reform efforts in Congress.
The ICE statement did not say whether the arrests involved anyone suspected of involvement in smuggling children.
(Reporting by Ian Simpson; Editing by Eric Beech)