Navtej Pall Singh Sandhu, 40, said to be a resident of London, was arrested in Puerto Rico and is held in Dallas. Along with two other men, he is said to have organised the shipping of thousands of aliens to the US.
The illegal immigrants - as many as 300 a month - were sought by Americans running low-cost businesses, such as fast-food restaurants, who needed cheap labour. Several different rings were said to have brought in as many as 12,000 people over three years.
Operation Seek and Keep involved arrests in the US, Puerto Rico and the Bahamas. The US attorney's office in Dallas charged 31 people last week with bringing illegal aliens into the US, transporting them within the country, money laundering and conspiracy.
"This is the largest alien smuggling organisation ever dismantled in US history," said Janet Reno, the US Attorney General. But the numbers involved are only a tiny fraction of those who come over the border from Mexico every day.
The immigrants were flown by the smugglers to Moscow, then on to Cuba. From there they were sent to either Ecuador or the Bahamas, and on to Miami. Many ended up in New Jersey, but one of the hubs for smuggling was Dallas.
The smugglers charged clients about $20,000 each, and more if there was trouble in getting them into the country. The cash was sent to India via Canada, Dubai and the United Arab Emirates. The three rings made a total of $220m, the US authorities estimated.
The rings overlapped but also competed, said US judicial officials. They expected further arrests across America, including some of the franchisees of fast-food chains.
The tip that led to the breaking of the smuggling operations occurred when a deal went wrong, the New York Times said yesterday. Five illegal immigrants were arrested in Miami en route to New Jersey, and the smugglers added their $5,000 bail money on to the fee. The angry immigrants then contacted federal authorities.
Many of those smuggled into the US were kept as virtual prisoners, the authorities said.
According to the National Criminal Intelligence Service, thousands of illegal immigrants are smuggled into Britain by organised crime groups, such as the Russian mafia and Chinese triads. It says international, organised criminals are becoming increasingly involved in the smuggling of people, frequently from Turkey, China and the Indian sub-continent.
Illegal immigrants pay up to pounds 10,000 each for special "package deals" that include forged documents and the services of a lawyer to help them stay in this country.
The smuggling networks are being targeted by MI6, MI5 and a new unit of police and immigration officers. The number of people caught illegally entering Britain has risen from 60 in 1991 to 700 in 1997, although only a small fraction of the immigrants are caught.