By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
After working the night shift at the food-services job she’s held at LAX for the last 21 years, Juana Jimenez went home and crawled into bed. A tall woman in her 40s, Jimenez got home a little after 10 a.m. and was still sleeping peacefully at 2:20 p.m., when her oldest daughter nudged her awake. Jimenez opened her eyes to find four U.S. marshals standing around her bed. They handcuffed her right there in the bedroom. Jimenez, who had arrived in the United States from Mexico in 1976 and had been a legal permanent resident since 1987, had no criminal record. Most of her time was spent working to support her three children, all of them U.S. citizens, and her husband, also a citizen, who had been unable to work since being diagnosed with cancer. Wanting to work, it turns out, was Jimenez‘s only alleged crime. The government claimed that she had illegally obtained the Social Security number she used on her job application in 1978. Two decades later, she found herself behind bars, out of work, and facing felony charges and possible deportation.
Jimenez was one of 81 workers swept up on August 22 as part of Operation Tarmac -- a massive raid involving more than 100 agents of the INS, the FBI, the Social Security Administration, the federal Department of Transportation, the U.S. Marshals Service and even the California Department of Motor Vehicles. Operation Tarmac had been initiated by U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft in November as a counterterrorism campaign to increase airport security by arresting anyone suspected of fraudulently obtaining security badges that allowed them past security checkpoints. “The goal of the initiative,” said U.S. Attorney Debra Yang in a press release the day of the sweep, “is to eliminate individuals with access to sensitive areas of airports if they have unknown or questionable identities.” Immigrant-rights advocates, however, charge that Tarmac has been nothing more than an enormously elaborate press release for which immigrant workers are being forced to bear the cost. “It’s nothing more than a PR way to show that they‘re doing something for the security of this country,” says Ben Monterroso of the Service Employees International Union, which represents many airport workers. “But all it’s really doing is hurting hard-working immigrants.”
Since Operation Tarmac‘s launch, the Justice Department has brought it to nearly 100 airports nationwide. Almost 800 people have been arrested, and 563 have been charged. Not one has been linked to terrorism, though government spokesmen insist that those arrested were potentially vulnerable to blackmail by terrorists. In Los Angeles, the investigation lasted nine months, with agents reviewing the files of 45,000 employees at LAX, Long Beach and John Wayne airports. Authorities indicted 104. A small number had provided false information to hide past criminal convictions, or to collect extra Social Security income, but the vast majority had done nothing more sinister or unusual than lie to get a job.
Of the 81 who were arrested, some, like Jimenez, were picked up at their homes. Others, like Hazar Mulafer, a 34-year-old Sri Lankan who has worked as an aircraft-maintenance technician at LAX for the last 12 years, received letters signed by the airport security coordinator asking them to attend a mandatory security-training session. When Mulafer showed up, he was greeted, given a name tag and directed to a conference hall. He opened the door and found, he said, about 100 armed federal agents waiting inside. Instead of receiving training, Mulafer was arrested and faced the possibility of a lifetime ban from the country and forced separation from his wife and two children.
At least one of those arrested had not worked at the airport for nearly a year. Raoul Mendoza, from the Mexican state of Chihuahua, has been a roofer in Los Angeles since 1988. His most recent employer, Eberhard Roofing, had been contracted to work on one of the terminal roofs at LAX in the late summer and fall of 2001. Mendoza had not been back since. Nonetheless, seven U.S. marshals arrived at his home on the morning of August 22. They refused to tell his wife why they wanted him and, not finding him at home, arrested him at a job site near downtown, where he was working on the roof of a hospital. His family (Mendoza supports his wife and two children) did not learn why he had been arrested or where he was for two days, when he was finally able to call home from jail.
All of those arrested were charged with one or some combination of three crimes: false representation of a Social Security number, false use of a Social Security card and falsely claiming to be a U.S. citizen. All were initially charged with felonies, though the U.S. attorney had the discretion to charge them with misdemeanors or decline to prosecute them at all. Not all cities have embraced the operation as wholeheartedly as Los Angeles. Rocky Anderson, the mayor of Salt Lake City, was infuriated by the 69 arrests that took place there in December, and sent letters to dozens of other mayors asking them to forewarn undocumented airport workers of the sweeps. In the Bay Area, where 43 workers were arrested at San Francisco, San Jose and Oakland airports in March, the local U.S. attorney only issued one indictment.