Byline: STEVE PATTERSON
While arguments about immigration and homeland security have grown to a public crescendo, illegal aliens have been working at military bases and other high-security sites across the country.
Foreigners with phony documents have been arrested for years at places from Cape Canaveral and Mayport Naval Station to a chemical weapons testing ground and the Army special operations headquarters at Fort Bragg, N.C. At least 109 arrests have been announced since last year.
Immigration officials worry about terrorists penetrating the bases.
"Unauthorized workers ... at sensitive U.S. military installations pose a serious homeland security threat," Jeff Jordan, a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement manager in Charlotte, N.C., warned last year. In October agents from his office arrested two undocumented Indonesian men and another from Senegal, all teaching languages at Fort Bragg.
Illegal aliens "have access to some of the most sensitive work sites in the nation," Jordan said in a written statement after the arrests. He said terrorists and criminals could intimidate illegals who didn't support them but were afraid of being arrested and deported. Immigration agents treat bases as part of a broad class of critical infrastructure sites, like nuclear power plants and airports, that merit extra attention.
Aliens arrested on base almost always work for contractors who perform jobs from resurfacing runways to servicing ships and planes. Those jobs are likely to multiply as the Pentagon streamlines its forces and leans more on private business for incidental needs.
Hundreds of illegal workers also have been found at civilian defense sites, from a Texas company making a million meals-ready-to-eat for troops in Iraq to a North Carolina factory refitting P-3 Orion patrol planes like those at Jacksonville Naval Air Station. An audit of a company doing maintenance for Navy ships in San Diego concluded nearly half the employees were illegal.
Employers can be banned from federal contracting, and can face criminal charges, if they knowingly hire undocumented workers.
Harsher penalties for employers were part of a plan that Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., promoted last week, as Congress waded into a passionate national debate about immigration reform. Frist called the flow of illegal workers "a national security challenge second only to the war on terror."
Companies often say workers fool them with fake identification.
"They're telling you that they're legal to work in the United States. Now, whether they are or not, that's another story," said Debbie Livingston, president of an asbestos-removal company, Aztec Environmental Inc. in Panama City. Livingston said 85 percent of her work has been federal contracts.
Last year the Air Force filed papers to stop Aztec and a sister business, Aztec Civil Construction, from bidding on government jobs. Air Force lawyers argued Aztec broke its contract by hiring undocumented immigrants, underpaying them and breaking environmental laws when it removed asbestos from a building on Tyndall Air Force Base in the Panhandle. The government said Livingston and her husband threatened to report workers to immigration agents if they complained.
While her payroll dwindled from 125 employees to 48, Livingston sued in federal court to remain eligible for federal work, including a Mayport paving contract. Her suit, which denies the Air Force claims, is still pending.
Like many asbestos contractors, Aztec hires a lot of Central American immigrants. …