(CNSNews.com) - Illegal aliens have been found working at military bases, refineries, airports and even a nuclear power station in the past few years, and their use of fictitious identification papers continues to bedevil even employers who try to operate legally, federal agents say.
Those apprehended were generally found to bear no ill intent, according to Special Agent Robert Weber of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency in Tampa, Florida.
Nevertheless, he told Cybercast News Service that the methodology used by these illegal workers could also be used by terrorists. Illegal aliens could also be open to blackmail, bribes and coercion at the hands of terrorists aiming to target their places of work.
Since it was formed in 2003, ICE, a division of the Department of Homeland Security, has audited almost 900 companies linked to critical infrastructure facilities, and found illegal workers on the payrolls of some 30 percent of them, said ICE southern regional communications director Barbara Gonzalez.
ICE investigations to date have resulted in the arrest of more than 1,100 alien workers and 775 criminal indictments at commercial airports alone, she said.
Recent investigations have focused on contractor and subcontractor work at U.S. military bases throughout the country where illegal aliens have been found working.
They are typically found in maintenance positions such as grounds keeping, painting and roof repair. But even such roles can bring them into close proximity with explosives and military hardware, Weber said.
To date, about 40 illegal aliens have been arrested at Air Force bases in the northern part of Florida alone, while 13 were arrested last January at the Naval Air Station in Key West.
Elsewhere in the country, two illegal aliens were found working at the Creech Air Force Base in Nevada last January, both employed by a masonry construction company. One turned out to be a member of the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) gang, a notorious criminal enterprise, which the FBI in 2005 named as one of the seven gangs posing the greatest danger to American communities.
At least 14 illegals have been arrested at the Quantico Marine Base in Virginia. Court documents show that two men - a U.S. citizen and a Mexican national - have been charged with conspiring to harbor illegal aliens.
And in Georgia, 21 illegal aliens who attempted to gain entry into Fort Benning earlier this year were arrested and charged with identity theft and immigration violations. Earlier, illegal aliens were found and removed from the U.S. Army's Fort Irwin training center in San Bernardino, Calif., and the U.S. Marine Corps Logistics Base in Barstow, Calif.
Other critical infrastructure worksite investigations have uncovered vulnerabilities in the nation's transportation system. At airports alone, ICE reported finding almost 6,000 unauthorized workers.At least 77 illegal aliens were found to be working on bridge construction projects in Mississippi, Louisiana, Tennessee and Arkansas, and were arrested last March after a five-month investigation. An investigation into the alleged criminal misconduct of the steel company that hired them is underway.
Scores of illegal aliens also have been found and arrested at petrochemical facilities, power plants, and at key construction sites, such as the location of the new federal court building in Orlando, Florida. Weber said it was risky having workers with questionable backgrounds working on such sites because they will have an intimate knowledge of the buildings and would be well-positioned to exploit any weaknesses in the structure.
Arguably the most alarming case in recent years was that of the Crystal River nuclear power plant in Citrus, Florida, where 10 painters and maintenance workers from Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras were arrested in 2005.
The ten used false social security numbers to acquire contract work. One was indicted on criminal charges for re-entering the county after a previous deportation, and the remaining nine have been placed in removal proceedings, Weber reported.
Brock Enterprises, a company based in Beaumont, Texas, was responsible for hiring them, although ICE officials said the firm was not suspected to have deliberately violated employment laws and had cooperated fully with investigators.
Although the arrests were not tied to any known terrorist conspiracy, the mere presence of illegal workers at a nuclear power plant is a great cause for concern, said Gonzales.
"Suppose there were 10 people intent on blowing up the nuclear facility," Weber said. "They could have gotten into the nuclear plant in the same way by using false social security documentation."
The U.S. currently has 104 commercial nuclear reactors in 31 states that account for 20 percent of electrical generation nationwide.
If a nuclear plant were to become disabled, the expected loss of energy output could easily be absorbed, a DHS report says. However, the report also acknowledges that in a "worst-case scenario" a terrorist strike on a nuclear plant could result in the release of radioactive material.
Shortly after the 9/11 attacks the Nuclear Regulatory Commission moved to enhance surveillance and restrict access at various plants. But additional measures are now under consideration.
For instance, the commission is pushing for legislation that would allow licensed security guards at nuclear plants to "carry more powerful weapons," and make existing sabotage laws applicable at these same sites.
Weber said the nuclear plant investigation had involved multiple agencies who shared information.
In Florida, whenever a potential terror threat linked to illegal aliens arises, the state's seven regional security taskforces are activated.
"The beauty of the Florida program is that we pull numerous teams together," Weber said. "Before 9/11 there was not much of a chance law enforcement would sit down across from the health department and fire department and talking about security. Now we have very close partnerships throughout the state."
Still, he acknowledged that counter-terrorism is an inexact science.
"The problem is you never know when you have prevented something, said Tom Storrar, who works with the taskforce operating out of Ft. Myers, Florida. "There are no hard answers and the person you arrest is not going to raise their hand and tell you if they are connected with someone else."
As they face the challenge, ICE investigations across the nation have been helped by a federal program allowing state and local law enforcement officials to operate as federal immigration agents in specified circumstances.
ICE says public-private partnerships in investigating employment practices is essential too, as the private sector owns about 85 percent of the nation's critical infrastructure.
A Homeland Security presidential directive specifically calls for greater coordination and cooperation between government agents and private industry leaders.
America will remain vulnerable to terrorist infiltration at critical infrastructure work sites, unless secure, tamper proof social security cards and tamper proof identifications are instituted, Rep. Dan Lungren (R-Calif.) told Cybercast News Service.
"I will accept the proposition that most illegals are not terrorists and are not here to do us harm," he said. "But the large presence of them in the country and their presence inside critical infrastructure sites create a vulnerability that would otherwise not be there."
Lungren has introduced legislation that would increase workplace inspectors by 1,000 over the next two years. He also wants to see biometric technology incorporated into identification cards.
In the meantime Lungren sees the Real ID Act as an important step forward. The legislation requires national standards to be used for driver's licenses, since this is what legal residents tend to use in most states. The act also mandates that any identification card used for a federal purpose such as passing through transportation security be issued only to those individuals lawfully present in the U.S.
The legislation has its critics. The National Council of La Raza, a Hispanic rights organization, argues that because the new system will create "easily distinguishable" temporary licenses, its clients will become more susceptible to civil rights violations.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) says that the system will put the government in a stronger position to expand surveillance activities and collect data on average Americans.
Lungren countered that the introduction of new ID standards and biometric technology will enhance privacy, protect against identity theft and root out unnecessary security screening.
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