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

The ring was similar to one discovered this week in New York City that held people in virtual slavery. But federal agents were still trying to determine if the two operations were linked, department spokeswoman Carole Florman said.

Nine men, five women and three children were taken into custody from the two houses in Sanford, N.C., Florman said. All the adults were deaf mutes; one of the children was born in this country and is a U.S. citizen.

They were moved to Charlotte, N.C., and housed in a hotel. Agents were interviewing them and some ``expressed relief at being released'' from the two houses, Florman said. She said the two houses contained bunk beds in crowded conditions.

The raiders swept through two brick, two-bedroom houses on a main thoroughfare in the town of 21,000 located about 40 miles southwest of Raleigh and known for its brickmaking. Neighbors had noticed a lot of traffic at the houses by vehicles and people, most of them deaf and-or speech-impaired, but did not complain of problems with the occupants.

No charges have been filed so far.

In the New York case, some of those charged with helping to run the operation were deaf mutes, said Florman.

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

The raiding party included 12 immigration agents, six detention-deportation officers, six Sanford police officers and four sign-language interpreters.

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.

On 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.

The Mexican Foreign Ministry said its consular officers in this country had found deaf Mexicans working in Sanford and in Chicago in what investigators described as virtual slavery.

``Additional groups of deaf and mute Mexicans have been detected in conditions similar to the group found in New York,'' the ministry said.

Mexican consular officials reported finding six deaf and mute Mexican vendors in Chicago.

Today, Juan Jose Salgado, deputy consul general in Chicago, said, ``According to what they say, they are working without any problems. The place is acceptable. It's not the best.'' But he added that his office is working with the Chicago Police Department to continue investigating the situation.

The foreign ministry said Mexican officials are taking steps to locate any others working in similar conditions in the United States.

Relatives of the deaf Mexicans in New York City said they were recruited under false promises of high incomes in the United States.

Since the New York arrests, the INS has received tips from cities including San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, Atlanta, San Diego, Houston and New Orleans reporting similar abuses.