By N.C. Aizenman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 14, 2008
Forty-two workers suspected of being in the country illegally were detained yesterday at Dulles International Airport as immigration authorities checked the identities of people entering one of the employee entrance gates.
Although immigration officials were still investigating, they say the detainees, all of whom are men, were Latin American construction workers involved with some of the extensive building projects underway at the airport.
"There's no indication that any of the aliens were involved in any terrorist activity at all," said Mark McGraw, deputy special agent in charge with the Department of Homeland Security's Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.
McGraw said the operation began about 5 a.m., when ICE agents working in conjunction with airport and transportation authorities set up a checkpoint at one of the southern drive-through entrances.
"ICE agents were stationed at the security gate, and we reviewed all the identity documents of all the people entering at that moment," McGraw said. "When we determined that the alienage or identity of someone inside a vehicle was in question, we recommended further inspection."
A similar operation at the airport in June 2006 resulted in the arrest of 55 workers.
McGraw said that although such large-scale checkpoint inspections are infrequent, they are part of the agency's wider, daily efforts to guard the nation's airports.
"This is a critical, sensitive facility so . . . of course we pay particular attention to it," he said. "It's one of the highest priorities of the Department of Homeland Security."
The workers were being detained administratively on immigration violations, McGraw said. Federal officials were trying to determine whether criminal charges were warranted against the workers and their employers.
Advocates for immigrants, with the National Capital Immigrant Coalition, complained that ICE officials refused to grant the detained men access to a lawyer even though the advocates arranged for one as soon as they were contacted by some of the workers' relatives.
According to Kimberly Propeack, advocacy director for CASA de Maryland, a member of the coalition, the lawyer reached ICE's office in Fairfax City in the afternoon, after the men were detained, but was told that because they had not been fully processed, they could not be informed that he was willing to represent them.
"Our understanding is that [ICE] has been interrogating the workers without legal counsel, despite the fact that an attorney has been literally knocking on the door to get in to help them," Propeack said.
Advocates, who held a protest in front of ICE's Fairfax office last night, were also concerned that officials might decide to move the men quickly to detention facilities in a distant state, as often happens to immigrants picked up by ICE.
"Some of these workers are likely to have viable legal claims to stay in the United States," Propeack said. "They may qualify for asylum; they may have pending immigration applications. But if they are moved away from their families, who are the only ones likely to find them legal help, the likelihood that they will find legal representation is very slim."
McGraw said that it was not clear where the men would be detained but that if they are moved from Virginia, it would be because of a lack of bed space. He said ICE intended to grant the men access to their families and a lawyer as soon as they were fully processed.
"No one is being threatened or interrogated," he said. "They are all being given due process."