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Operation Tarnish

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.

But advocates and defense lawyers say that federal prosecutor Debra Yang has pursued the cases with unnecessary vigor, not only charging those arrested with felonies rather than misdemeanors but originally offering them only felony plea bargains that would likely have resulted in deportation of those who accepted them. (Yang’s office has since backed down somewhat, dismissing some charges and offering misdemeanors to many.) Defense lawyers claim that the prosecution was abnormally rushed and that the timing seemed suspiciously political, with the initial plea offers expiring on September 9, allowing Yang to schedule a press conference for the anniversary of the September 11 attacks.

Federal public defender Kiya Kato argues that the government‘s hard line was unjustified, that its security goals were accomplished by the arrests alone, which resulted in the workers’ being fired. “These are people who haven‘t done anything wrong other than work and try to support their families, but they are people who in [the government’s] mind are throwaways, who they can use to put forth this appearance of having done something productive about terrorism.”

Thom Mrozek, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney‘s Office, rejects the charge that the prosecutions were politically motivated: “They decided to commit this crime to get their jobs,” he says. “They broke the law. It’s that simple.”

Community pressure has made some difference. Representatives from the Mexican Consulate, the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, the Asian Pacific American Legal Center and labor unions have been trying to persuade Yang to drop the charges since shortly after the arrests. Her office did drop all charges in some cases and, in late September, began to offer misdemeanor pleas. “Quite frankly we heard some compelling stories from some of the defendants regarding their circumstances,” Mrozek explains. About 20, though, are still facing felony charges.

Juana Jimenez was among the lucky few whose charges were dismissed altogether. She was able to prove that the Social Security number she used was in fact hers. Her mistake: She put down a birthplace in the United States rather than Mexico, and tried to correct this in 1987, when she became a legal resident. “We were finally able to clear up the discrepancy,” says her attorney, Charles Brown. “The family is relieved to be able to put this behind them. It was traumatic for her to be arrested in front of her family. It was a difficult, slightly humiliating process.” Jimenez, Brown says, expects to be able to get her old job back.

Hazar Mulafer and Raoul Mendoza were less fortunate: Both pleaded guilty last week to misdemeanors that will require no further jail time and that should not affect their chances of staying in the country. But both, being undocumented, will face deportation hearings before an immigration judge and still risk being separated from their families.

They are not alone in that fate. In early September, Miami-area airports were swept, resulting in 29 arrests. A few days later, 143 employees at Houston‘s Bush Intercontinental Airport were indicted, followed the next week with 110 indictments in Denver. According to Justice Department spokesman Jorge Martinez, Operation Tarmac is far from over: “This will continue, and the numbers will keep on growing.”