Security sweeps netting illegals

This month 105 foreign workers were arrested near Seattle, part of a crackdown on sensitive sites.

In October, three illegal immigrants were arrested at Fort Bragg in North Carolina using false IDs. In August, six Mexican nationals were arrested at Fort Irwin, Calif. In July, six more illegal immigrants were found at Homestead Air Reserve Base in Homestead, Fla.

A division of the Department of Homeland Security has continued to ramp up post-9/11 investigations of what it considers key strategic sites across America: airports, power plants, and military installations. These investigations are routinely turning up so many illegal workers that concern is mounting - from Congress to terror watch-groups - that serious security breaches are possible at some of the most strategic and critical sites in the country.

In the light of such arrests, immigration groups also complain that illegal workers are once again being unfairly singled out as terror risks.

Government officials counter that they are more concerned that if illegal immigrants can so easily and regularly gain access to so many sites, the opening for possible terrorists to do so as well must be wide indeed.

"The main concern in all this is that we are looking for any potential vulnerabilities that could be exploited by terrorists or others with ill intent," says Jamie Zuieback, head spokeswoman for the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in Washington, the largest investigative arm in Homeland Security. "If we are seeing these egregious violations at our sites of highest strategic value, we need to find out how it is happening and shut it down."

Numbers of arrests mount

Less than two weeks ago, 105 foreign nationals were arrested in Seattle at a customs warehouse work site. In the past 12 months, more than 150 illegal immigrants have been discovered at sensitive installations in Mississippi, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, and Iowa - among several other states. The illegal workers had jobs as building contractors, teachers, chefs, and custodians. From 2004 to 2005, the number of ongoing ICE investigations has increased from 465 to 511.

Over that time, such investigations netted nine illegal workers at Boeing's helicopter plant in Phoenix, which manufactures US military aircraft. Nine more were found working at the Army Ammunition Plant in Middletown, Iowa. Nine others were performing contract work at a facility in Winston-Salem, N.C., that refits the US Navy's P-3 Orion aircraft. Many have been deported. Others face criminal charges and have been released on bond pending court hearings.

"When I see how many of these illegals are being caught and with such regularity, I feel the US has not learned one of the key lessons of our recent terrorist past," says Bruce Hoffman, a senior researcher at the RAND Corp.'s Center for Terrorism and Risk Management Policy in Washington.

He cites the case of Ali Mohamed, who was not an illegal immigrant but who was a key Al Qaeda operative of Osama bin Laden who served as an instructor on the US Army base at Fort Bragg. It shows how terrorist groups have been able to infiltrate US military bases, he says. In 1998, Mr. Mohamed was convicted for his role in the 1998 US Embassy bombing in Kenya.

"My main question is why, four years after 9/11 and a decade after Mohamed was unmasked, are the credentials of [those who have] routine access to military bases not more closely scrutinized," says Mr. Hoffman. "One of the most successful tactics of insurgents in Iraq is to infiltrate military and police operations."

New security measures

ICE officials say they are working closely with military installations to improve security, including the identification and background-check procedures of personnel both at the bases and of contract workers the bases use.

Though Congress has not focused its attention on the string of security breaches, individual representatives are conducting further review in their own districts. One is North Carolina Rep. Robin Hayes (R), whose district includes Fort Bragg, home to the US Army's Special Operations Command.

"This is extremely disturbing to us that the three arrested here were giving language instruction to some of our most trained special forces," says Carolyn Hern, communications director for Representative Hayes.

Hayes is working with military officials at Fort Bragg to design new pilot programs for security measures. Some include new mobile technology, implemented at other US bases, to instantly verify someone's identification.

Others include ways to instantly query for IDs on federal, state, and local "most wanted" lists as well as military law enforcement databases.

Some objections to searches

Though ICE and military officials say their investigations are not specifically targeting illegal workers, some immigrant and civil libertarian groups say the continued crackdown fits a pattern of unfair suspicion of immigrants.

"This has to be put in the context of this administration's action over the past four years in which the war on terror has become a war on immigrants," says Ahilan Arulanantham, an attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union who works on security and immigration issues.

"Their actions have resulted in the deportation of thousands but no terrorists. This makes good headlines but doesn't make the US any safer," he says.

Others say the reason so many illegal immigrants are repeatedly found at military bases and other strategic sites is not because of security breaches but because of the country's heavy reliance on undocumented workers in every industry.

"There are 11 million undocumented [workers] laboring in every sector of the US economy, so of course they are going to be found at bases too," says Anjelica Salas, director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles.

"We are zeroing in on cooks and cleaners and not really paying attention to terrorist elements. We are using resources in the wrong way," she says.

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