WASHINGTON – The Homeland Security Department (search) arrested 57 illegal immigrants last month working at airports and other risk-sensitive facilities around the country, underscoring concerns that lax employment background checks are leaving a security breach for terrorists to exploit.
In one example, a Peruvian was hired as an airplane mechanic in Greensboro, N.C., using a fake Social Security (search) card he bought for $70 on a soccer field, according to court documents. In another, a Florida power plant was alerted to a Mexican working at its nuclear facility only after being tipped off by labor union employees, company officials said.
None of those arrested appear to have terrorism ties. Nearly all used fraudulent or altered driver's licenses and Social Security cards to obtain security clearances. All worked in security-sensitive areas — whether beyond passenger screening checkpoints at airports or in close proximity to nuclear reactors — federal authorities say.
"These individuals pose potential vulnerabilities," said Marcy M. Forman, director of the investigations office at U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (search), an arm of the Homeland Security Department.
"Because many of them have utilized fraudulent documents, we don't know who they are," Forman said. "And if they're able to use fraudulent documents, what's to keep terrorists and criminals from doing similar things?"
As many as 11 million illegal immigrants live in the United States, according to a recent study by the Pew Hispanic Center, a private research group.
The U.S. Border Patrol apprehended 1.1 million illegal immigrants last year. Thousands more have been arrested or removed from their jobs since the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, which triggered closer government scrutiny of hiring practices at potential target buildings.
Federal investigators regularly conduct unannounced checks of facilities with heightened security risks — from a New Orleans oil refinery to the Sears Tower in Chicago. Illegal immigrants who are caught are usually deported or placed in immigration proceedings, and employers can face criminal sanctions.
Whom to blame for immigrants' apparent ease in slipping through gaps in security screening systems is not always clear.
Most of those arrested in March were contract employees sent to work at the facilities as janitors, mechanics, landscapers and other maintenance crew members. Security screening requirements vary widely among companies.
Moreover, an interim Homeland Security plan to protect critical infrastructure offers only vague guidance for businesses wishing to adopt employee security clearance programs.
Hiring illegal workers at secure facilities will likely continue until the government issues a standard employee screening process, said P.J. Crowley, a Clinton administration national security aide and analyst at the Center for American Progress, a liberal advocacy group.
"Most of these people do not pose security risks per se, but the illegal immigrant today could be someone with nefarious goals tomorrow," Crowley said.
Complaints from labor union employees tipped off company officials to six illegal immigrants working at the Crystal River Power Plant in Crystal River, Fla.
Only one man, a Mexican, worked on the highly secure nuclear side of the plant as part of a crew of supervised painters inside a turbine building, Harris said. The plant has since tightened its security measures even for supervised workers, verifying their Social Security numbers with a credit-checking company before granting access.
"The ability for someone to get into the plant under some false identity — we want to shut that off," plant spokesman Mac Harris said.
At Piedmont Triad International Airport in Greensboro, Timco Aviation Services conducted five-year criminal background checks on all of its employees but left subcontractors to do their own screening, company spokesman Monty Hagler said. As a result of the arrests, Timco will require subcontractors to make background checks on their employees, he said.
At least two of the 27 airplane mechanics arrested at the airport bought fraudulent Social Security cards on a soccer field for between $50 and $70, according to court documents. But all the workers were supervised by certified mechanics, said Hagler, minimizing their security risks.
"Terrorism was not an issue in this. This was an immigration issue," Hagler said.
Immigration advocates said the arrests highlight the need to overhaul work laws for illegal immigrants. Last year, President Bush renewed his call for a guest worker program for immigrants seeking jobs.
"Part of reform needs to recognize that there are people here, living in the U.S., and working and paying taxes, who need to come out of the shadows," said Judy Golub, spokeswoman for the American Immigration Lawyers Association.
"We're never going to enhance our security until we have immigration reform," Golub said.