WASHINGTON -- About 800 people have been arrested since December in ongoing sweeps of airport workers around the country in an operation proponents call vital to national security but critics decry as overzealous law enforcement.
No terrorism suspects have been caught so far in Operation Tarmac, but many undocumented immigrants with humble jobs have been arrested. Among them was cleaning woman Angelica Barrera, who was taken in handcuffs from jail to the hospital to give birth.
She wasn’t accused of violence or theft, but of using false identification to get a job at John Wayne Airport in Orange County. Charges were later dropped, but Barrera laments not being allowed to cuddle her baby daughter the night she was born. The mother said she was hurried back to a cell.
Federal officials strongly defend the sweeps, saying it would be irresponsible not to thoroughly check airport workers after the Sept. 11 attacks. They note that Operation Tarmac has snared a number of felons who are now barred from working at airports. But among the immigrants, many once-normal lives have been upended, prompting outcries that the government is penalizing harmless individuals.
In Southern California, more than 80 employees whose jobs gave them access beyond the security checkpoints were arrested in late August. Nathan Marquez drove a catering truck that serviced planes at Los Angeles International Airport.
“We are not terrorists, we are workers,” said Marquez, who was fired after being arrested for allegedly using a false Social Security number. A naturalized U.S. citizen, Marquez had had no other problems with the law. Federal prosecutors later dropped the charges, but Marquez hasn’t been able to get back the job he’d held for 14 years.
Not all those who have gotten into trouble were immigrants.
Rick Baer, a veteran firefighter and emergency preparedness trainer at the Norfolk, Va., airport, was fired for allegedly failing to disclose on a security form a 10-year-old misdemeanor conviction. He said it stemmed from a time he waved a handgun at trespassers near his home in a high-crime area. Baer said he never kept the incident a secret from his co-workers and supervisors at the airport. A federal judge dismissed the charge, but prosecutors are appealing.
“They have attacked American citizens because they can’t find anybody else to arrest or investigate,” Baer said.
Federal officials say the sweeps are needed to protect travelers.
The investigations have helped solve some crimes. Last month in Philadelphia, a baggage handler was arrested for not disclosing previous felony convictions that would have disqualified him from working at the airport. When authorities searched his bedroom, they found two handguns that had been stolen from checked luggage belonging to a Customs agent and a Phoenix police officer.
If a felon can get an airport job, a terrorist operative could do the same -- and use his security badge to gain access to planes, law enforcement officials said.
“We have to make sure individuals in these security-sensitive areas are who they say they are,” said Jorge Martinez, a Justice Department spokesman. “I’m sure no one wants another terrorist attack.”
Keeping terrorists out “is not at all in question,” said Susan Alva, executive director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights in Los Angeles. But she objects to arresting undocumented immigrants who have no other violations.
“These arrests are more damaging to the individual than the good the government is trying to accomplish,” Alva said.
The government says it cannot simply ignore immigration violations. “So when did we get to a point that it’s a good thing not to enforce our laws?” Martinez asked.
With 25 of 429 airports targeted so far, the debate and the sweeps are continuing.
Within law enforcement, there are mixed feelings. Former federal prosecutor Henri Sisneros left his job with the Salt Lake City U.S. attorney because he strongly disagreed with Operation Tarmac.
“I believe that you’ve got to secure the airports, but I took issue with the means,” said Sisneros, now a federal public defender. “This was far disproportionate to any crime that these people had committed.... They are picking on the weakest of the weak.”
Undocumented workers should not be singled out for harsher treatment because they hold airport jobs, said Cathal Flynn, a former Federal Aviation Administration security chief.
“If they are otherwise law-abiding I don’t think the penalty should be harsher than if they are found working at Macy’s,” Flynn said.
Otherwise law-abiding employees should be given an opportunity to resolve their immigration problems, Sisneros said. He opposes felony charges that could subject even those who are legal residents to deportation and exclusion.
“These people are enmeshed in American life,” Sisneros said. “The practical effect of the prosecution is to give them a lifetime ban from this country.”
In Los Angeles, federal prosecutors originally filed felony counts against the detainees. After a meeting with Latino community groups and an internal review, prosecutors reduced most of the defendants’ charges to misdemeanors.
“Our meeting with them confirmed in our minds that it was the appropriate thing to do,” said Assistant U.S. Atty. George Cardona. “I think we would have probably come out the same way.”
About 40,000 people work at Los Angeles-area airports, and for the few arrested last August the consequences have been severe.
Barrera, the mother of three who gave birth in custody, said she cries when she remembers her detention. She was picked up Aug. 22 on state charges in conjunction with the federal roundup.
“I feel that I am in a very strong depression,” Barrera said. “When I recall it, I feel a knot in my throat.”
Barrera, 30, said she had left her minimum-wage airport job nearly a year before the authorities noticed her. The Thursday morning of her arrest, she walked her 8-year-old son, Edson, to his school bus. When Barrera returned home, the police were waiting.
“I said, ‘What’s this all about?’ ” she recalled. “They responded, ‘Did you work at the airport?’ ”
Barrera’s due date was not for another two weeks, but she unexpectedly went into labor two days after being jailed.
Her lawyer, Luis Carrillo, said he found a technical error in the complaint, and Orange County prosecutors dropped the charge. Barrera was reunited with baby daughter, Alondra, and her two older children, but she said her son Edson is now afraid to leave her side.
Marquez, the catering truck driver at LAX, said his problems began when he got a letter asking him to attend a security seminar Aug. 22. He arrived, filled out some forms and was ushered into a room.
“Six federal agents jumped me and shoved me against the wall,” said Marquez, 46. “I didn’t know what was going on. They handcuffed me and started interrogating me.”
Marquez and his wife, Los Angeles residents for 21 years, have raised three children. Marquez came as an undocumented immigrant from Ecuador, but he obtained amnesty and became a U.S. citizen in 1999.
When he first started working, Marquez said he used a false Social Security number. He received a valid number after becoming a citizen. But his employer would not allow him to use the valid number, he said. The same employer has now fired him.
“They have broken me in pieces,” Marquez said. “The federal authorities are the maximum authorities in the world. With a few computer keystrokes, they can tell whether a person is a terrorist or a criminal. This could have been handled in another way.”
Asked about Marquez’ case, prosecutor Cardona responded: “That is not the kind of guy we want to go after.”