Nov. 8--Federal and local law enforcement agents raided several warehouses Wednesday at O'Hare International Airport and arrested 24 workers who were allegedly in the country illegally and using phony security badges for jobs on the tarmac, cargo areas and other restricted zones.
Also arrested Wednesday in a probe federal authorities said "identified national security vulnerabilities" were two company managers at Ideal Staffing Solutions Inc., a temporary employment agency in Bensenville. The firm allegedly hired the workers and provided them with deactivated airport security badges that allowed them to work at O'Hare, immigration officials said. Ideal Staffing managers also knowingly allowed workers to lie about their identities on airport security applications, officials alleged. They said they're still investigating whether there are more related security risks at the airport.
"Most of these workers loaded pallets, freight and meals for companies doing business at O'Hare," including commercial airlines such as United Airlines, KLM Royal Dutch Airlines and Qantas Airways, said Elissa A. Brown, special agent-in-charge of the Chicago office for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
"The government can't be too vigilant when it comes to airport employees gaining access to secure areas, especially if they lie about their identities and we have no idea who they are, and what their true intentions may be," Brown said.
In one instance last month, one of the managers, Norinye Benitez, 24, of Franklin Park, allegedly pushed a box filled with 20 green color-coded security badges toward a worker cooperating with federal agents and instructed him to "pick one with a picture that most closely resembled his own likeness," according to a federal affidavit filed Wednesday along with two complaints. The worker, who had never been fingerprinted by federal aviation officials, used the deactivated badge he chose to gain access to a United Airlines cargo facility, officials alleged.
Additionally, a review last month of 120 airport security badge applications submitted by Ideal Staffing showed 110 of them had Social Security numbers that belonged to someone else or didn't exist, officials said.
Benitez, who also allegedly is in the country illegally, faces up to 10 years in prison on federal charges of harboring illegal immigrants and misuse of a Social Security number. She was held Wednesday at the federal Metropolitan Correctional Center in Chicago.
Her colleague Mary Gurin, 26, of Carpentersville, a corporate secretary who allegedly signed off on fake security badge applications, was similarly charged and faces the same penalty. She was released on $250,000 bail.
Company president Diego Deastis, who did not return phone calls to his Wood Dale home Wednesday, was not charged, officials said, adding that the 8-month-old investigation into the company that formed in 2003 is ongoing. The Ideal Staffing offices in Bensenville were dark and locked Wednesday evening.
While the investigation continues, some questions about the operation remained unclear.
Federal officials couldn't say how the company got access to deactivated city Aviation Department security badges or why those badges would still allow someone to enter a restricted area.
"It's a question we don't have an answer to at this point in time," said Ken Fletcher, deputy federal security director for the Transportation Security Administration.
Fletcher added that officials also were investigating why the workers were never fingerprinted, a requirement for all airport personnel.
"We're still at the point where we don't know how we got to this point," said Brown, who declined to comment on whether any of the arrested workers -- most of whom are from Mexico -- have criminal histories. All face felony charges in Cook County for carrying fake IDs and, although they are being held at Cook County Jail, they are expected to be deported, officials said.
The arrests inside the airport warehouses and at the homes of some of the defendants echoed a 2002 federal crackdown at O'Hare in which 15 of the 25 workers arrested were found to be illegal immigrants.
Among the restaurant workers, airplane custodians and baggage handlers caught in that raid was Elvira Arellano, who went on to become a well-known activist after she took refuge inside a Humboldt Park church for more than a year and then was deported.
Tribune staff reporter Vanessa Bauza contributed to this report.
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