Airport boss won't take the blame

Chicago's aviation commissioner on Thursday contradicted charges that illegal immigrants gained access to secure areas of O'Hare using deactivated city security cards -- and she put blame for the problem on the federal government and private employers.

On Wednesday, federal and local authorities cracked down on a company that allegedly got illegals identity badges so they could load cargo and meals onto commercial jetliners. By Thursday, 33 illegals had been arrested for possession of fraudulent identification, and two employees of a Bensenville temporary agency faced federal charges.

"This is not about fault. This process entails more than one entity," said Aviation Commissioner Nuria Fernandez. "The process we have in place out there is a very good process."

Workers in secure areas at O'Hare need green color-coded security badges issued by the city's Aviation Department. According to federal criminal complaints, employees of the temp agency used bogus or borrowed Social Security numbers to get the badges, and workers were not fingerprinted as required.


In one case cited in the complaints, a worker selected from a bin of 20 deactivated badges and gained access to a United Cargo facility, a secure area.

But Fernandez said that couldn't be true -- though U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials said it was.

"If the badges were deactivated, they cannot access the secure areas of the airport," Fernandez said.

Officials involved in the arrests call it a security issue -- not an immigration issue. The fake IDs mean authorities have no idea who is really loading cargo onto planes.

Federal court documents in the case identify the Aviation Department as responsible for the badge program, but Fernandez said responsibility is "multi-tiered."

"It's the airport employer's responsibility to ensure that the employees who are applying for work have a legal right to work," Fernandez said.


She said individuals' information and fingerprints are sent to the Transportation Security Administration, a division of the U.S. Homeland Security Department, which handles background checks.

As for deactivated badges, Fernandez said the city levies fines against companies that don't return them. The Aviation Department also conducts audits to track badges, she said. There are about 40,000 badges in all, she said.

"We constantly send reminders to employers to make sure they're on top of things," Fernandez said.