TONOPAH - About 75 illegal immigrants were found Tuesday in the desert about 50 miles west of Phoenix, many suffering from dehydration and exhaustion from triple-digit heat, authorities said.
Seven immigrants and three sheriff's deputies were taken to hospitals for treatment, said Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio. Officers used a helicopter, canine units and all-terrain vehicles and conducted foot patrols to search for others believed to be in the area, officials said.
"We know they're still out there because there's sounds in the brush," said Lt. Paul Chagolla, a sheriff's department spokesman. "We can hear them. They've hunkered down."
Lt. Chuck Siemens, who was in charge of the search operation, estimated late Tuesday that few than 20 people were still out in the desert.
The immigrants told authorities that three people had died in the desert but authorities were still searching for bodies late Tuesday and couldn't confirm that, said Chagolla.
Arpaio, whose office made the discovery, said investigators suspect that the immigrants were left in the location until smugglers could arrange transportation for them to be taken elsewhere.
"They are stashing them out there," Arpaio said.
Authorities gave water to the immigrants, who were being turned over to federal immigration authorities, Arpaio said.
Siemens said some of the immigrants said they hadn't had water since Sunday and were desperate. "They were bombarding us for water. We passed out water bottles and it was a frenzy," he said.
Federal officials said groups of illegal immigrants have been found in that part of the county before.
Arpaio, whose office had previously brought more than 250 cases against illegal immigrants under a new Arizona smuggling law, said the immigrants found Tuesday won't be arrested.
They weren't caught in the act of being transported by a smuggler - a necessary element of proving the state crime, Arpaio said.
Other immigrants who might be found in the area will be charged under the state crime if they are caught being transported by a smuggler, Arpaio said.
"We are now zeroing in on the smugglers," Arpaio said.
Even though immigration had long been considered a federal responsibility, state lawmakers passed the law over frustration with Arizona's porous border with Mexico and the costs of health care and education for illegal immigrants and their families.
The law targets smugglers, and Maricopa County's top prosecutor has said that those who paid to be sneaked into the country also can be charged as conspirators.
Maricopa County, which includes Phoenix, is Arizona's most populous county.