Naked City

Operation Tarmac: Overkill?

Twenty-eight Mexican immigrants used false information to obtain low-level jobs in secure areas at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, but did their actions warrant criminal prosecution?

The federal government thinks so, hence its recent sweep -- code-named Operation Tarmac -- of some 100 airports across the country, resulting in the arrests of nearly 700 Latinos from Mexico and Central America. All of the indicted ABIA employees were from Mexico, authorities said. Most of them are in federal custody awaiting deportation, after pleading guilty last month to providing false Social Security numbers or other U.S. documents on their security-clearance forms. Nine indictees remain at large, though, and the U.S. Attorney's office has listed them as fugitives with the National Crime Information Center, according to agency spokeswoman Shana Jones.

To date, Operation Tarmac -- part of an anti-terror campaign involving seven federal agencies -- hasn't turned up a single suspect linked to terrorism, authorities acknowledge. And only one of the indicted ABIA employees had a prior record -- a misdemeanor conviction for shoplifting, said Horatio Aldredge, an assistant U.S. public defender working on the cases with Austin immigration attorney Barbara Hines. "These are just simple, hard-working people who posed zero risk to the public," Aldredge says. "These cases wouldn't have been prosecuted under normal circumstances," and the defendants would have been "sent on down the road" with voluntary deportations.

The former ABIA employees worked in various secure areas, cleaning airplanes, or assisting with food catering. Two of those arrested worked in the food court but were not prosecuted, Aldredge said. Two others -- one of whom was breast-feeding an infant -- have been released on bond.

From U.S. Attorney Johnny Sutton's perspective, "allowing individuals who are in the United States illegally ... [and] have access to the most secure areas of the Austin airport poses an unnecessary security risk and one the U.S. Attorney's office will not tolerate." Operation Tarmac, he said, "underscores the importance of ensuring there are no gaps in airport security."

"Yes," Aldredge responds sarcastically, "we are all much safer now -- and our airports and airplanes are dirtier for it."

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