IT’S EASY to believe that the post–September 11 Operation Tarmac, a high-profile sweep of immigrants working illegally at the nation’s airports, will make us safer — because we want to believe that it will make us safer.
But it won’t.
To date, none of the 356 former airport workers arrested for working illegally in the US has been linked with terrorist activities. Not a single one. Yet US Attorney General John Ashcroft has praised Operation Tarmac for ensuring that airport employees "are worthy of the trust granted to them."
Locally, Massachusetts District US attorney Michael Sullivan, who is prosecuting such cases against 19 former Logan Airport workers, declared in a high-profile press conference that Operation Tarmac will close "those gaps in security that may still have existed post–September 11."
It’s hard to imagine how the arrest and criminal prosecution of people who’ve done nothing worse than lie on a job application is going to make this country safer. In her page-one story, Phoenix writer Kristen Lombardi shows that prior to the Operation Tarmac arrests, immigrants who lied to employers about their work status were rarely charged with criminal penalties. To be sure, criminal prosecution for such violations has been an option since the passage of the Immigration Reform and Control Act in 1986. But for the most part, immigrants caught lying about their work papers have simply paid civil fines.
Daniel Kesselbrenner, a Boston attorney who heads the National Immigration Project, compares lying about work papers to "exaggerating charitable donations" on a tax return. Both are victimless crimes that may warrant civil penalties, but not the jail time or deportation that the 19 former Logan Airport workers, if convicted, will face.
It’s true that life has changed since September 11. But with one exception, every US attorney prosecuting Operation Tarmac cases has either reduced or dropped the charges. The exception? Massachusetts’s Sullivan, who is pursuing maximum legal penalties against the former Logan Airport employees swept up in Operation Tarmac. "Ignoring the alleged criminal activity of illegal immigrants sends the wrong message to the rest of the world," he tells the Phoenix.
But what message is Sullivan really sending? If he and the architects of Operation Tarmac were truly interested in keeping immigrants without valid employment papers from working in our nation’s airports, they would prosecute the people who hired them. The 1986 law under which the former workers are being charged also calls for penalties against employers who fail to check the status of green cards and work permits and the authenticity of Social Security numbers presented by prospective employees.
The failure to charge employers like Argenbright Security, which employed six of the 19, and Precision Cleaning Company, which employed four, shows that the prosecution of the 19 former airport workers here in Boston is motivated by politics, not practicality. After all, claiming to crack down on "illegal immigrants" makes for a great sound bite at a press conference. Saying that you’re going after employers who fail to complete employment-authorization forms doesn’t have the same ring.
Sending someone like Samuel Mgweno, one of the 19 former Logan workers, to jail isn’t going to make this country more secure. Mgweno, 22, a Tanzanian who’s lived here intermittently since 2000, first came to the United States on a student work visa to attend Seeds of Peace, a Maine camp that teaches nonviolence to teenagers from war-torn countries. When his stint at the camp ended in August 2000, Mgweno came to Boston to stay with a friend. He worked for Argenbright Security for four weeks. At the time of his arrest, two years later, Mgweno was living in Houston, where he was studying engineering at Houston Community College. On March 1, four INS agents tracked him down at his new home and arrested him. No, sending someone like Samuel Mgweno to jail, or even merely deporting him, will only make this country weaker.
Sullivan should exercise some common sense in his prosecution of people like Mgweno. At minimum, criminal penalties should be taken off the table. Better yet, he should drop the charges altogether and mobilize the resources of his office to pursue real criminals. As Mgweno asks: "Why doesn’t the government go for people who are really responsible for terrorism?"
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