A new dragnet for illegal workers

Arrest of 100 airport employees symbolizes a hardening US stance.

Haitian Jean-Claude Cazeau was a janitor at Logan Airport. Far from his native Malaysia, Shamshad Bagam Karim was a parking valet at Las Vegas's McCarran Airport. And Alvaro Pardo, originally from Chile, worked at a candy store at the Salt Lake City airport.

Within the past weeks, all three have been arrested and now face the possibility of jail time and deportation. They were detained for allegedly using some form of false identification to obtain their jobs - each in a secure area of an airport.

The expanding dragnet symbolizes a hardening stance by federal authorities toward illegal immigrants of all nationalities who they think might pose a security threat.

While law-enforcement officials have yet to link any of the people recently arrested - almost all of whom are Latinos - to terrorists, they believe that undocumented workers are susceptible to being approached by nefarious groups.

Critics, however, believe the undocumented workers are being unfairly targeted. Consequently, the new sweeps are setting off a debate over the extent to which illegal immigrants, many of whom have been allowed to work unmolested in such low-wage jobs for years, will and should be prosecuted in a post-Sept. 11 world.

For some of the US public, the issue results in a conflict in values. "Americans have an ambivalent attitude toward illegal immigrants," says James Lindsay, an immigration specialist at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "They expect people to obey the law, but they don't put too much pressure to arrest them and argue it's unfair or counterproductive."

The Bush administration, for its part, seems to be adopting a zero-tolerance policy. One Justice Department official says making airports safer is of the highest priority for the administration - and the latest moves are intended to fulfill the intent of legislation passed after Sept. 11.

"Undocumented workers represent a significant threat to the flying public," says Natalie Collins, a spokeswoman for the US Attorney's office in Las Vegas. "Because they are illegal, they are susceptible to compromise."

Airport workers may not be the only ones under scrutiny. US investigators are expected to also go through employment applications at nuclear power plants, hydroelectric dams, and other security-sensitive facilities.

One mayor's stand

So far, some 100 airport workers have been arrested. After the arrests, Rocky Anderson, the mayor of Salt Lake City, sent a letter to 40 other mayors warning them about the federal raids and urging them to "get the word out that if there is a problem, they [the workers] need to get out and find other employment."

Mr. Anderson, who has received a lot of hate mail because of his stand, calls the US policy "hypocritical." He says the government just "winks and nods" when it comes to illegals working in hotels, food, or lawn care. "Let's resolve this by giving them fair notice," he says.

However, those under arrest are often unquestionably in violation of the law by using false Social Security Numbers (SSNs) or forged "green cards." But the charge has hardly ever been used because of the number of illegal workers. Mr. Lindsay says there are estimates of 7 million to 11 million undocumented workers in the US.

Through the 1970s and 1980s, anyone could make up an SSN and no one would pay attention, says Chris Hibbert of Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility in Palo Alto, Calif.

By the 1990s, employees needed a matching name and number, unless their employer turned a blind eye. Then, people with access to numbers, such as bank employees or healthcare workers, started selling them for $20 to $100 apiece, he says. Recently, the Social Security Administration arrested some of its own employees in Chicago for selling numbers to illegal immigrants.

In 2000, the government arrested or indicted 219 people in 182 cases for using falsified SSNs. Last year, there were 242 subjects in 207 cases, and overall the Social Security Administration said that about 21 million names did not match up with Social Security numbers for any number of reasons - ranging from marriages to foreign names to fraud.

To pursue these cases - as well as other instances of fraud - there are 279 criminal investigators working for the Social Security inspector general.

A changed world

Social Security investigators stress that it is the changed world since Sept. 11 that is causing the sudden interest in immigrants' documentation. "If someone can falsify documents and get a high-security badge, they can potentially put a bomb on a plane or anything else," says Dennis Lynch, special agent in charge of Social Security's Strategic Enforcement Division. "We are talking issues of protecting our critical infrastructure, including dams, bridges, and nuclear power plants."

Yet the rush to secure the airports illustrates some of the difficulties involved. Sometimes, for example, the documents that federal agents are pouring over are not up to date. In Salt Lake City, one person charged had left the airport for a construction job two months prior to the raid. The charges against him were dropped - as were those against pregnant women and mothers with newborns.

All this is part of larger changes taking place behind the scenes in the nation's airports. It's not just the screeners - now federal employees - who are under the microscope. Now, it's almost everyone who carries a security badge. For example, under recently passed federal legislation, anyone who handles baggage must be a US citizen.

This may have massive ramifications, since union officials say almost 80 percent of the baggage handlers in Los Angeles and San Francisco don't qualify.

"All this sets a dangerous precedent, equating security with citizenship," says Solange Bitol, an immigration lawyer with the Service Employees International Union. "Many of these people are trying to live the American dream and in many cases are even more patriotic."

For example, in Salt Lake City, one family had purchased a house with money saved from the past five years. Now, they are likely to be deported. "I don't see happy endings," says Mark Alvarez, an attorney representing several of those arrested.

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