Federal immigration agents arrested 55 illegal alien construction workers early yesterday morning in a raid at Washington Dulles International Airport, part of Operation Tarmac, an ongoing crackdown that has netted thousands of illegals who have access to commercial airports.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents stopped a large bus carrying the illegal aliens as it approached an airport checkpoint before 5 a.m.
Although reports circulated that several suspects fled into a nearby wooded area, officials said it was unlikely since yesterday's operation targeted only the bus and all those aboard were taken into custody.
There was no indication that any of the illegals were involved in any terrorist activity.
"They were intercepted by ICE agents, who began to examine their work and immigration documents," said spokeswoman Ernestine Fobbs.
The arrests capped a several-weeks-long investigation by ICE, the Transportation Security Agency (TSA), U.S. Customs and Border Protection, and the Metropolitan Washington Airport Authority (MWAA).
Officials spent the day yesterday processing the detainees, who are from Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala and Bolivia. Most were scheduled to be flown to an ICE detention facility in Texas for removal proceedings.
The two privately owned construction companies that employed the illegals had been busing the workers to the airport each morning for several weeks.
ICE did not release the names of the firms or say whether they were locally based. The firms may face charges if an investigation reveals they knowingly hired illegal aliens. Rob Yingling, an MWAA spokesman, said at least 35 companies with more than 2,000 contractors are working on the $4 billion construction project at Dulles, which includes new runways, a subway system and concourse expansion.
The illegal alien workers were escorted at all times and did not have access to aircraft or other sensitive equipment, Jonathan Gaffney, another MWAA official, said. They worked in a secure, fenced area of the airport.
"The security gate where they did their [work] is far removed from runways, at least a mile away," Mr. Gaffney said.
Construction workers do not wear badges and are not subject to identification screenings or background checks, Mr. Gaffney said
It is strictly the construction firms' responsibility to hire, screen and escort employees through the airport to their fenced-off work site - a policy he said does not pose a terror risk.
"The construction company knows who their employees are [and] we don't really need to know who they are," he said. "Those who do have access to the airport [such as baggage workers, tarmac workers and flight attendants] have badges and go through a whole different screening process."
ICE officials, however, say one of the illegal workers had an airport security badge that allows unrestricted access to the tarmac - a situation that Department of Homeland Security Assistant Secretary Julie L. Myers, who heads ICE, said poses a "serious" threat to homeland security.
Mr. Yingling said the badge requires individuals to submit extensive paperwork, at least one government-issued identification card, fingerprints which are given to the FBI, and must undergo a criminal background check.
The roster of persons holding badges are regularly filed with the TSA, he said, and ICE is investigating whether the illegal alien obtained the badge fraudulently.
Some travelers seemed surprised when informed of the arrests.
"I think it's very disturbing," said Samantha Morton, 36, who arrived from her home in Houston.
She expressed sympathy for illegal aliens, but said that "not only do airports need to be secure, but people need to feel secure in them."
In April, ICE agents arrested eight Mexican illegals at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport for possible connection with a human-smuggling operation.
Matthew Cella contributed to this report.
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