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Immigration agents raided two houses in North Carolina today to break up a ring using deaf Mexicans for street sales of key chains, a Justice Department official said.

The ring was described as similar to one discovered this week in New York City that held people in virtual slavery.

Eighteen people were taken into custody in the two houses in Sanford, N.C., according to the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. Some might be charged with operating the ring, while others might be victims of the operation, the official said.

Acting on a tip from Mexican consular officials, immigration agents were flown into North Carolina Thursday night to conduct the raids.

After Monday's discovery of the similar ring selling key chains in the New York subways, four people were charged with alien smuggling, harboring and transporting illegal aliens and conspiracy. Three others were held on local charges.

Thursday, the Immigration and Naturalization Service took custody of the 50 deaf Mexicans in New York and interviewed them as potential witnesses in the criminal case against the alleged ring operators.

INS Commissioner Doris Meissner established a national anti-exploitation task force to investigate leads pouring in from all over the country about other such operations.

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