Special Report
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Posted May 9, 2002
Published in The Boston Phoenix
May 10-16, 2002
Waging war against a
bunch of immigrants

For the rarely prosecuted offense of lying on a job application, 19 workers once employed at Logan Airport face fines, prison, and deportation. Is this the way to fight terrorism?


ON DECEMBER 11, 2001, two months after the September 11 terrorist attacks, federal officials began a nationwide sweep of illegal immigrants employed at airports. Dubbed "Operation Tarmac," the project has so far led to the arrest of 356 immigrants in such disparate places as Salt Lake City; Phoenix, Arizona; Las Vegas; Seattle; Atlanta; Sacramento; Charlotte, North Carolina; Portland, Oregon; Washington, DC; and Boston — though none of the arrestees has been linked with terrorist activities. Still, the sweeps have broad public support, perhaps because the dramatic arrests satisfy our demand for action. At a February 27 press conference held at Logan’s Terminal A, Massachusetts District US attorney Michael Sullivan said: "This initiative is a major step in closing those gaps in security that may have still existed post–September 11." On April 22, US Attorney General John Ashcroft described Operation Tarmac as a way to ensure that people who have access to sealed airport areas "are worthy of the trust granted to them."

But a look at the local impact of Operation Tarmac, in which 20 current and former employees of Logan Airport were arrested, shows just how politically — rather than practically — motivated the effort has been. If Operation Tarmac’s true goal was to make us more secure — as opposed to making us feel more secure — the people and firms who hired the now-suspect immigrants would also be facing charges. But they’re not. Each of the "Logan 20," as those arrested in Boston have come to be known, had been employed at one time or another by private companies that contract with the Massachusetts Port Authority, which runs the airport. Six operated baggage-screening equipment for Argenbright Security; four cleaned terminals for Precision Cleaning Company; the rest worked as airplane fuelers, janitors, and food servers. Caught up in the sweeps are immigrants like Martin Gonzalez, 34, a gentle, mustachioed man from Mexico. His journey to this country represents the typical immigrant’s tale; in 1990, he fled his dirt-poor family farm in Guadalajara for Los Angeles, where he worked as a janitor while sending money to his parents and 11 siblings. In 1995, he arrived in Boston. He got a job as an airport custodian. He met his wife, Iris, a Chilean immigrant. Last year, after six years of scrubbing toilets for $9 an hour, he bought a modest home in Revere. "I am settled here," says Gonzalez, who speaks Spanish, through an interpreter.

But on February 27, his vision of America as the land of opportunity crumbled. Gonzalez, who had never been arrested before, woke early to bring his wife to the airport in time for her to catch a flight to Chile. When he returned home, he learned from his wife’s son that police had shown up at 5:30 a.m. with an arrest warrant. He turned himself in. "I am not a criminal," says Gonzalez, who enjoys temporary legal status and a work permit.

Yet it wasn’t long before he would be made to feel like one. No sooner had he surrendered to the federal Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) than his hands were cuffed and his feet shackled. He was detained at Plymouth County House of Corrections, in a three-prisoner cell, for five days. He still cannot shake the sense of shame that comes with being caged in with hardened offenders — or, in his words, "scary people." He averts his eyes, adding, "I am hard-working. I feel very out of place."

GONZALEZ AND his fellow immigrants’ cases have drawn fierce criticism in Boston. Detractors have called attention to the fact that six of the current 19 Logan defendants have valid immigration papers. (Charges against one of the original 20, Reginald Pierre, have been dismissed, although officials decline to say why. "It’s not public record," says Samantha Martin, of the Boston US Attorney’s Office, which is handling the cases.) Seven did not work at the airport at the time of their arrests. Only one has a criminal record. More important, none of the defendants has been linked to terrorist activity. Susan Church, of the Massachusetts chapter of the National Lawyers’ Guild, which is circulating a petition calling on Sullivan to drop the charges, sums up the criticism best. "If we’re going to wage a war on terrorism, we should investigate people who pose a danger," she says.

On April 23, this complaint could be heard repeatedly outside the US District Court in South Boston, when 14 of the 19 defendants appeared at the courthouse for arraignment on identical charges. (Because the cases are being handled individually, defendants have been arraigned on different dates.) Close to 50 labor, civil-rights, and immigrant advocates turned out on the dank, brisk afternoon to protest. They held signs reading WORK IS NOT A CRIME and JUSTICIA PARA LOS LOGAN 19, and chanted, "Justicia! Justicia!" as speakers seized a portable microphone to demand an end to the attack against immigrants whose only crime has been to work in order to survive.

"I AM NOT A CRIMINAL," says Martin Gonzalez (Right), who turned himself in after learning the police had a warrant for his arrest.                                                                                                                                             Inside the courthouse, the mood was sober. The defendants - Latino, Haitian, and African men and women - stood side by side in Courtroom 23, as if in a police-up. Some had red, swollen eyes. Others had furrowed brows. Each wore a solemn expression. They sat quietly, their hands folded, waiting for the charges to be translated into their native languages: one count of lying on a job application; one count of using false alien-registration card; and one count of presenting a false Social Security number.                                                                                                                                             "How do you plead?" the court clerk asked 14 times, to which the defendants, through interpreters, replied "Not guilty." For many, their response was barely audible, as if they felt disgraced by it all.
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Samuel Mgweno, 22, a slight, unassuming Tanzanian man, cannot forget the humiliation that consumed him at his March 26 arraignment. Like a broken record, his mind keeps rehashing the events of his plight. "It is like something not real," says Mgweno, who had never before run into trouble with the police. The second oldest of five, he grew up in a quiet, industrious household in Tanzania’s capital of Dar es Salaam. He’s resided in the US on and off since June 2000, when he arrived on a student work visa to attend the Seeds of Peace, a Maine camp that recruits teenagers from war-torn countries to instill the virtues of nonviolence. Now, nearly two years later, being labeled a criminal has left him "in horror."

Mgweno’s nightmare did not begin with the February 27 raids in Boston. It took shape 48 hours later and about 1854 miles away — on March 1, in Houston, where Mgweno was studying engineering at Houston Community College. On that Friday, around 11 a.m., he started his day with a shower. While bathing, he heard noises in the two-bedroom apartment. Within minutes, someone was banging on the door.

"A voice called out, ‘Samuel, we want to talk to you,’" Mgweno recalls. Befuddled, he grabbed a towel and opened the door — only to find four INS agents peering at him. The agents, he says, inquired about his name. They asked if he’d ever worked at Logan and if he’d ever worked for Argenbright Security.

"I had no idea what was going on," Mgweno says. He remembered the now-embattled security firm, based in Atlanta. After camp had ended in August 2000, he traveled to Boston to stay with a Tanzanian friend until his visa expired in October. At that time, he worked as a screener at Logan for four weeks. But more than a year had passed. In the interim, he’d gone back to Tanzania then returned to the US after receiving a student visa in August 2001, which he used to attend college. Why, wondered Mgweno, who was arrested by INS agents that morning, would such agents appear at his door now?

It would be nearly four weeks before Mgweno discovered, at his March 26 arraignment, that he’d been charged with making one false statement on Form UA-1, an application completed by employees whose jobs require access to secure airport areas. According to the criminal complaint filed against him, Mgweno allegedly responded affirmatively to a Form UA-1 question — "Are you a US Citizen or do you have an Employment Authorization or Resident Alien Card?" — while knowing his answer "to contain materially false" information. Until his arraignment, he’d been shuttled from jail to jail, in Houston, Oklahoma, Georgia, and in Central Falls, Rhode Island, where he was held at the Donald W. Wyatt Detention Center until his release on April 8. All told, he spent 38 days behind bars, his hands and feet shackled, his self-respect shattered. On March 21, he hit an all-time low when he celebrated his 22nd birthday in prison.

"I was waiting for a miracle," says Mgweno, whose middle name, ironically, is Innocent. Now out on bail, he lives with fellow Tanzanian immigrants in Weymouth. He reports twice a week to the federal courthouse, where he must prove to court officers that he hasn’t fled the state. He speaks with his court-appointed attorney almost daily. The situation has made him realize how immigrants in the US — who simply came here for a better life — can get caught in the hysteria that’s swept the nation since September 11. Mgweno, his voice cracking, asks, "Why doesn’t the government go for people who are really responsible for terrorism?"

IT’S UNLIKELY Mwgeno and the remaining Logan 19 would have faced criminal charges for their alleged infractions just nine months ago. Before September 11, the US Justice Department rarely threw its prosecutorial weight behind cases involving immigrants caught without legal papers. It’s not that the potential for such prosecutions didn’t exist, according to Susan Akram, a Boston University professor and lawyer who teaches immigration law. Federal prosecutors have charged the Logan defendants under the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA), which dates back to 1986. That law made it a federal crime for immigrants to work illegally in the US.

But despite that legislation, Akram says, "criminal penalties have rarely been brought into the employment context." On occasion, authorities have brought civil complaints for document fraud against immigrants who used fake identification to secure jobs; aside from facing deportation, workers pay a civil fine. Yet criminal prosecution has long been viewed as overkill. Explains Akram, who has represented countless illegal immigrants, "These people were never worth federal prosecutors’ time before September 11."

"WHY DOESN'T THE GOVERNMENT go after people who are really responsible for terrorism?" asks 22-year-old Samuel Mgweno (right-front).  

One reason for prosecutors' prior lack of interest comes down to practicality. According to the Boston College Immigration and Asylum Project (BCIAP), which helps area refugees, approximately eight to 10 million people living in this country are classified as "undocumented" or "temporary" and lack full legal status. So, says BCIAP director Daniel Kanstroom, millions of people who don't have proper work authorization "do exactly what the Longan workers allegedly did." He suspects the 1986 law is violated on a massive scale because "people are here and will starve if they don't work." For prosecutors to go after illegal aliens who have done nothing more than commit what immigration experts refer to as "minor paper violations," he adds, "would be impractical.

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Yet that’s exactly what’s happened to the Logan workers, who’ve essentially been accused of lying on an employment application. Daniel Kesselbrenner, a Boston attorney who heads the National Immigration Project, which offers legal aid to immigrants, equates what the Logan 19 did with what scores of taxpayers do. The law may forbid fudging information on tax forms, he says, "but that doesn’t stop some from exaggerating charitable donations." Such indiscretions, he says, are "victimless offenses" that should result in civil fines, not criminal prosecution.

The criminal charges have raised the stakes considerably for the defendants. They’ve already lost their jobs and must grapple with possible prison sentences. Also, they face deportation. Because the INS classifies fraud-related offenses as "crimes of moral turpitude," placing them alongside such felonies as drug possession and murder, the accused, if convicted, would not be allowed to come back to this country for years — not even to visit family. For immigrants like Gonzalez, whose wife has permanent residency, the consequences may be devastating. Says Boston attorney Catherine Byrne, who represents Gonzalez, "The repercussions are huge for people who have been here for years and have legal status."

Of course, the proceedings have already taken a toll. Jabri Moushine, 21, a chubby, shy Moroccan immigrant who speaks impeccable English, has yet to shake the fear he felt when he was awakened by a dozen federal agents who descended on his two-bedroom apartment in Revere. Some 10 weeks after his February 27 arrest, he cannot sleep at night. Noises haunt his imagination, keeping him alert, causing him to dart to his bedroom window. "I’m afraid they’ll come back again to get me," he says.

His paranoia is easily understood. Like Mgweno, Moushine is charged with making one false statement on Form UA-1 — allegedly answering "yes" to the same question about citizenship status. He, too, had never brushed up against law enforcement. An only son, he grew up in a close-knit, prosperous home in Casablanca. He came to Boston in July 1999 out of family loyalty; indeed, he was sent here by his father to help his sister, a single mother, care for her newborn baby. According to the criminal complaint against him, he allegedly used his travel visa to get a job with Argenbright, where he says he worked from September to December 2000.

Those four months have cost Moushine his liberty. He was handcuffed, shackled, and detained at the Wyatt Detention Center for eight days. When he was released March 7, he experienced a different kind of confinement. Unlike most of the Logan 19, Moushine had to wear an electronic bracelet for seven weeks. The gadget, which resembles a black beeper strapped to the ankle, would have alerted authorities if Moushine had ventured beyond a 100-yard radius of his home. Although he could walk outside his apartment, he could not step outside the building’s entrance. He could not buy groceries, wash clothes, or take out trash. About all he could do was read, watch TV, sleep — and show up for court appearances. After nearly two months of house arrest, Moushine’s court-appointed lawyer, Leo Sorokin, of the Federal Public Defender’s Office, filed an April 24 motion to remove the electronic bracelet — and won. The experience has altered Moushine’s vision of America. "I didn’t do anything to warrant this treatment," he says.

US ATTORNEY SULLIVAN acknowledges that his office has found no evidence linking the immigrants to terrorism. He admits that most have no criminal record. Still, he describes the charges as "absolutely appropriate." Although federal prosecutors used to shy away from these cases, they have focused on illegal aliens since the attacks because, he argues, "we cannot ignore the potential risks" that come with a wink-and-nod attitude toward immigration violations. "If people can obtain false documents and use them to get jobs," he says, "it’s just a matter of time before the wrong people do the same." (It should be noted that all the September 11 terrorists had valid US immigration visas.)

Sullivan maintains that his critics fail to recognize one crucial thing about the Logan workers — that they allegedly broke the law. "Some people might not like it, but I won’t be apologetic for our decision to pursue prosecution," he says. In his estimation, prosecuting the Logan 19 can protect the public from future terrorism. The airport sweeps send what he calls a "valuable and consistent" message to anyone looking to come here and do harm. "Ignoring the alleged criminal activity of illegal immigrants sends the wrong message to the rest of the world," he says, although six of those charged are in this country legally.

Clearly, Sullivan’s rationale has some appeal. But if we’re really interested in sending a consistent message by punishing people who violate immigration law, then why aren’t the employers who hired the Logan 19 being charged as well? At the time of the high-profile arrests, Sullivan announced that none of the companies that had employed the Logan 19 — Argenbright, Precision Cleaning, Host Marriott Corporation, Hudson General Corporation, One Source, and Service Master — is under investigation by his office. Nor would any of them face criminal charges.

This inconsistency strikes many observers as unfair. After all, the 1986 IRCA legislation under which the Logan defendants are charged requires businesses to complete an employment-authorization form, known as the "I-9," for each employee. Employers must verify documentation, including green cards, Social Security numbers, and work permits. Companies found to have violated the law can be fined up to $10,000 per employee. Supervisors who knowingly hire undocumented workers can face up to six months in prison.

But the law hasn’t always translated into common practice. In industries like agriculture and services — which rely on low-wage, immigrant labor — companies often neglect to verify documentation or conduct thorough investigations. "They want to hire the first qualified worker and get on with things," says BU’s Akram. So if the government is now prosecuting document fraud, she adds, "It’s unfair to simply go after the employees and scapegoat them."

Kesselbrenner, of the NIP, agrees: "If this was evenhanded, you would investigate both." Officials’ failure to scrutinize employers, he says, "underscores the fact that their main goal is political."

At Logan, some companies might have done more than simply fail to verify documentation. Take Precision Cleaning, a Malden company providing janitorial services to Logan’s Terminal E. At the April 23 protest, one member of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 254, which represents the four former Precision workers among the Logan 19, charged that the company has encouraged immigrants to use false documentation. One current Precision employee claims that she has worked 35 hours per week yet received paychecks under two names — one using a fake Social Security number. The employee says her manager proposed the scheme to avoid having to pay her full-time health benefits and the $10 hourly wage. She went along with the plot because she needed the extra hours to feed her family. According to Sylvia Panfil, of SEIU Local 254, several workers corroborate those allegations. Precision employees, she explains, did not come forward to tell union representatives about the practice until after the February arrests. The union has since tried to meet with Precision executives — to no avail.

Richard Casey, who owns the company, did not return a phone call from the Phoenix seeking comment.

And then there’s Argenbright, which, until recently, employed 40 percent of the nation’s airport screeners. In May 2000, a federal judge ordered the firm to pay $1.2 million after it pled guilty to felony charges for falsifying records and performing shoddy background checks on 1300 employees at Philadelphia International Airport. Last October, Argenbright wound up in the same court for failing to re-verify employee records at some 34 airports, including Logan.

While this questionable track record caught Massport’s attention, the agency did not evict Argenbright from Logan until last December, when two guards, on separate occasions, left terminal doors unchecked. (Argenbright has been kicked out of all American airports now that the US Department of Transportation is seizing control of security.) Given its history in Philadelphia, it’s not a stretch to think Argenbright skirted the rules at Logan. As one Boston attorney who’s been following these cases puts it, "It seems to me the people who are ultimately responsible for security breaches may not be the poor Argenbright workers, but rather the company executives."

Sullivan, for his part, had not heard about the charges against Precision. "I’m not going to speculate in terms of investigation," he stresses. "But if union officials have information, they should provide it." As for any plans to investigate Argenbright — or, for that matter, other Logan companies — he keeps his cards close to his vest. "I would not comment on ongoing investigations."

For now, then, the Logan 19 must await their trials. Prosecutors in other cities have either dismissed or reduced the charges against immigrants arrested in Operation Tarmac, but Sullivan has promised to pursue these cases to the end. "The policy," he explains, "is to charge people regardless of the offense for the highest penalty possible."

This hard-line approach has left immigrants like Gonzalez in "pain and confusion," he says. He has lost his livelihood and, in many ways, his future. "I am very depressed," he confides, his eyes focused on the floor. At times, when he’s shuttling to the courthouse twice weekly, his life seems as fictional as television — except, he says, "on TV there’s always a happy ending." But for him? "I’m not so sure."  

Kristen Lombardi can be reached at klombardi@phx.com                                                                                                                                                                                        Copyright 2002 Phoenix Media Communications Group

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