A raid at Dulles International Airport conducted by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents early last Wednesday morning resulted in the arrest of 55 illegal immigrant workers attempting to enter a secure construction site on airport property, according to ICE officials.
The workers "were working at a critical infrastructure area where the threat to security is elevated," said ICE spokesperson Ernestine Fobbs. "We are concerned about the critical security at our airports and the effect that allowing access to illegal immigrants could have on that security."
Illegal immigrants "pose a serious homeland security threat when they are present in areas like this because the identities of these individuals are in question," she added.
While the immigrants arrested in Wednesday’s raid all face possible deportation, more than half of them were flown last Wednesday night to El Paso, Texas, where they are currently being identified, according to Fobbs. It was not immediately made clear why some of the workers were allowed to stay in the area.
The workers are citizens of Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala and Bolivia, according to ICE officials. Fobbs would not comment whether or not any of the workers’ family members of illegal status would be a focus of ongoing ICE investigations.
The workers’ family members "don’t have anything to worry about if they’re here legally," Fobbs said. "But it’s a risk they’re taking if [they’re] here working illegally without proper authorization to work in the United States."
TO GAIN ACCESS to the area of the construction site, the workers had to have been issued a Secure Identification Display Area (SIDA) badge, or be escorted to the site by someone with a SIDA badge, according to Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority spokesperson Robert Yingling.
The process of attaining a SIDA badge includes presenting a government-issued form of identification as well as FBI fingerprint and criminal background checks, Yingling said. At least one worker who was arrested was in possession of a SIDA badge, according to ICE officials.
"We have on an ongoing basis work-site inspections," at private sites for laborers working illegally in the United States, Fobbs said. "But one of our priorities is getting to those who try to work at critical infrastructure locations and therefore are more able to put themselves in a position to do harm."
"As an agency we are focusing especially on our priorities … being [critical] infrastructure and secure locations … such as airports, chemical plants," Fobbs said.
"I was pleased to see that INS is beginning to enforce the labor laws in this county," said state Del. Tom Rust [D-86], representing the district that includes Dulles Airport. "Whether they’re going into a critical infrastructure area or not, our borders are porous."
The workers arrested in Wednesday morning's raid would be charged the same as undocumented immigrants working at a private site, according to Fobbs. They were being employed by two different construction firms contracted to one of the 35 active construction projects at Dulles Airport.
WHILE IT WAS not made clear where the workers were hired, who the contractors who allegedly hired them to work at the airport construction site were or whether sufficient checks of the employment status were made by employers, Fobbs said that potential employers throughout the country who hire workers without legal authorization to work in the United States could face criminal charges.
Bill Threlkeld, director of the Herndon Official Worker’s Center in Herndon, a local employment center that caters to the area’s temporary day laborers said that the raid will have no effect on how the HOW Center does business. HOW Center employees check the nature of the work being offered, but not the worksite location of employers who solicit the work of the laborers.
"I don’t think that the workers hired at the center are going to the airport … or other big, secure sites," Threlkeld said. "When you look at the business at the HOW Center, 80 percent are homeowners and the other 20 [percent] or so are small businesses."
With the unemployment rate in Fairfax County at 2.3 percent according to February 2006 figures, businesses may have a more difficult time finding legal workers to fill positions as the busy summer construction season comes into full swing, said Rust.
"I know that the work force is very tight here in Northern Virginia," Rust said, "but that does not excuse [employers] from breaking the law by hiring people not legally documented," to work in the United States.
Fobbs would not comment on charges that could come to the contractors who were allegedly employing the workers illegally, as an investigation is still ongoing.
ICE agents have arrested illegal immigrants working at other secure locations over the course of the last 18 months in raids at Camp Pendleton Marine Corps Base in California and Logan International Airport in Boston.