All sides agree on this much: Elvira Arellano is no terrorist.

But the ripple effect of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks has already landed her in jail and may soon send her and her 4-year-old son back to Mexico. Or worse, she could end up spending up to a year in prison.

All this, over a fake Social Security number she’d used to apply for a job.

In the eyes of federal prosecutors, however, Arellano was a security threat: As an airplane cleaner, she had access to vital areas inside O’Hare International Airport.

“I felt terrible because they were treating me like a criminal,” said Arellano, whose arrest came in December. “Perhaps my only crime was to work to make a future for my son.”

The arrest was part of an investigation code-named Operation Chicagoland Skies, one of several federal stings designed to ferret out terrorists and soothe the public’s jitters over flying. Since the Sept. 11 attacks, federal authorities have conducted similar sweeps at airports in dozens of cities across the country.

“Our response has been to weave a web of terrorism prevention that brings together all agencies of justice and every level of law enforcement,” U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft said in April, touting the nationwide campaign. “Let me be clear—there will be zero tolerance of security breaches at our nation’s airports.”

But an examination of Operation Chicagoland Skies, drawn from court files and a series of interviews by The Chicago Reporter, reveals that the “web of terrorism prevention” has largely come up empty.

Instead, after reviewing records for tens of thousands of workers at O’Hare and Midway airports, federal agents mostly rounded up undocumented immigrants, some of whom had obtained fake Social Security numbers or passports like Arellano. Others were U.S. citizens who had concealed prior criminal convictions.

Among those swept up were janitors, food service employees, a baggage handler, truck drivers and other low-level airport workers—45 in all. During raids of some workers’ homes, an additional eight undocumented immigrants were arrested.

But none, prosecutors admit, is suspected of—much less charged with—having ties to a terrorist group.

To critics, the crackdown is a textbook case of overzealous law enforcement carried out by eager federal officials intent on “grandstanding.”

“Quite frankly, I think they did it as a PR stunt, so they can simply say, ‘Look, we are doing something,’” said Patricia Mendoza, regional counsel for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. “But they have not done anything that enhanced national security. These are all people who were basically trying to make a life for themselves and their families.”

Joshua Hoyt, executive director of the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, points out that all but five of those arrested were undocumented immigrants. Somewhere along the way, he said, the focus on safety at airports has somehow shifted to a focus on the immigration status of workers.

“Operation Chicagoland Skies was undoubtedly a huge escalation—kind of a quantum leap—in terms of harshness of the enforcement of civil immigration laws in the name of national security,” he said.

So far, criminal charges have been brought against 24 of the 45 workers arrested. Two had allegedly re-entered the country after once being deported. The 22 others are accused of supplying false information on their applications to carry the security badges that gave them access to restricted areas of the airports.

Authorities charged an additional three workers, but the charges were dropped against two of them, and the third remains at large.

Deportation proceedings were brought against 29 undocumented immigrants, including eight who did not work at the airports.

The government defends the operation, saying it would be irresponsible not to thoroughly check airport workers after the Sept. 11 attacks.

“If we are saying that we are serious about airport security—and we are—then we have to take the responsibility of ensuring that people who are given access to restricted areas are who they say they are,” said Randall Samborn, spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Illinois.

But Arellano says she meant no harm. Using a fake Social Security number was simply a means to secure a legitimate job, said Arellano, a slender, bright-eyed woman of 28. Having crossed the border illegally in 1997, she had lacked proper legal documents.

All she ever wanted was a chance to make a decent living, especially after the birth of her son, Saul, in 1998, she said.

“I wanted to stay here where I could provide for my son. I didn’t want him to go without anything,” Arellano said. “I know that I can feed us. We could survive here.”

Painstaking Review
The December sweep was the culmination of a year of meticulous federal investigations requiring unusual cooperation among law enforcement agencies, officials said.

Much of the work consisted of painstaking reviews of more than 84,000 records on multiple fronts: The immigration status of the workers was verified by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service; criminal background checks were performed by the FBI to weed out convicted felons; and the authenticity of Social Security numbers listed on badge applications was examined by the U.S. Social Security Administration.

In the end, investigators found discrepancies in the information provided on 553 applications, a discovery that has since led to the arrests of 45 people.

Patrick J. Fitzgerald, U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Illinois, praised the operation at a December press conference.

“If we’re going to have any chance to make our airports secure from crime, most importantly for terrorism … we have to know who is working there,” he said.

Added William Cotter, who heads the investigative arm of the Social Security Administration in Chicago: “Any number of them could have compromised the integrity of the security system in place.”

Yet none of those arrested were treated like major threats to national security.

At press time, only two of those arrested remain locked up in Chicago’s Metropolitan Correctional Center, an administrative-level facility that usually houses inmates sentenced to three years or less. Most spent a brief time in detention before they were released on their own recognizance—with a relatively small bail of $4,500. Some were swiftly deported.

Prosecutors have already dismissed three criminal cases and brought misdemeanor charges against 14 workers—though they initially announced at the press conference that all were being charged with felonies.

So far, 15 cases have been resolved, mostly with sentences of probation for a year or less. Two cases led to prison time beyond the time already served.

The disposition of cases caught up in immigration proceedings could not be accounted for by the INS.

Swept Away
Elvira Arellano’s trouble began on Dec. 10 with a knock at the front door of her apartment in Pilsen on the Near Southwest Side. It was about 8 a.m., and she and her son were still asleep.

The visitors were about a half dozen officers, dressed in dark jackets with lettering in yellow. She didn’t recognize the uniforms, but they identified themselves as “federal police,” she remembers.

Initially, she figured they were investigating a nearby crime. Yet the line of questioning seemed odd from the get-go: Who else lives with her? Where are her IDs? Does she own a weapon?

The gravity of the situation soon dawned on her.

“They asked me if I understood what was happening, and I told them, ‘Yes,’” she said. “I had heard through the TV that there had been roundups [of airport workers] in other states.”

That morning, it turned out, federal agents were canvassing across the city, similarly arresting 20 other workers.

Like most workers arrested that day, Arellano was charged for fraudulently obtaining airport security clearance, a federal offense punishable by up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

But her immediate concern was for her son, whose custody, she was told, would be turned over to the City of Chicago. She wasn’t about to let that happen.

“I told them, ‘No,’ because I have worked to support my son, not the city,” she said. “I raised my voice and told them that my son was going to go with me.”

Eventually, they agreed to let him stay with a babysitter.

With her son out of sight, the officers slapped handcuffs on her. She began to cry. “They didn’t have to treat me like that,” she said.

The next stop was an INS detention center in Broadview, just west of Chicago. There, she was briefly interrogated and spent the next eight to nine hours waiting.

Around 7 p.m., she was transported to federal court, where she met three other airport workers who shared the same fate. A judge read them their rights and assigned each an attorney. Through an interpreter, their charges were explained.

The whole thing took about an hour, she said. Then she was let go, on a bail of $4,500.

As she headed home, her cell phone rang. News of the sweep had apparently been all over TV, and a co-worker was calling to warn her.

By then, it was 12 hours too late.

Compromised Position
In the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, the Bush administration made terrorism prevention the top priority of federal law enforcement agencies.

Ashcroft has said he wants the Justice Department to go after terrorists the same way former U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy went after the mafia in the 1960s—by prosecuting them for the smallest of offenses, even “spitting on the sidewalk.”

The airport sting, known nationwide as Operation Tarmac, was one of the first initiatives to emerge from this philosophy.

The genesis of the operation was in Salt Lake City, where a beefed-up security in preparation for the 2002 Winter Olympics led to the firing of more than 200 airport workers and 69 indictments similar to those filed in Chicago. Many of those affected were undocumented immigrants with no suspected links to terrorism and no prior criminal history.

The government has since replicated the operation at dozens of airports, with virtually the same results.

The campaign has helped solve some crimes, officials say. In Philadelphia, a baggage handler was arrested for not disclosing previous felony convictions. When authorities searched his bedroom, they found two handguns that had been stolen from checked luggage belonging to two law enforcement officers.

In Chicago, authorities uncovered no such crimes but arrested several workers who failed to disclose past felonies, including a 40-year-old Chicago man with a 1994 conviction for robbery and unlawful use of a weapon.

The government argues that, if a felon can get security clearance, a terrorist operative could, too.

But, at the same time, the wide net cast by the government has snared those who, by most accounts, worked hard and caused no trouble.

There was, for instance, Abraham Soto, a Mexican native who has lived in Chicago for three years. With a fake Social Security number, he had landed a job serving sandwiches inside Midway Airport.

He is marrying a U.S. citizen, but their plans now have to wait: On Feb. 6, he was sentenced to 45 days in prison.

Such stories have sparked fervent protests across the country.

In April, Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson announced a program encouraging people to help the families of undocumented immigrant workers who were fired in what he called an “unnecessary and inhumane” operation.

In Chicago, Mayor Richard M. Daley has not weighed in on the issue and was not available for comment. But others staged a raucous rally at O’Hare airport within days of the crackdown, drawing nearly 100 protesters.

Voices of criticism have even come from the ranks of prosecutors.

Henri Sisneros, a former federal prosecutor in Salt Lake City, argues that, just as police don’t haul every jaywalker off to jail, the government should choose more carefully whom to prosecute.

“One of the questions you ask as a federal prosecutor is, ‘Is this a bad guy?’” he said, “and the answer almost universally with all the people who were prosecuted as a result of this operation was, ‘No. No way.’”

Last year, Sisneros quit his job as a federal prosecutor over his strong disagreement with how the operation was conducted. He’s now an assistant federal defender.

But others insist that, in a fight against terrorism, the government can’t be too vigilant.

Brian R. Perryman, who retired from a post as director of the Chicago INS district this month, says undocumented employees place themselves in a compromised position in which terrorists could blackmail them.

“When terrorism organizations want to commit crimes at the airport, it serves their purposes to have people that they can coerce or force into cooperation,” he said.

“We don’t want to wait until something terrible happens and then say, ‘Oh, we knew those people didn’t have the right identifications but we really didn’t think that was important because some of them were just illegal immigrants trying to get jobs,’” Perryman added. “We can’t afford to do that now.”

But such logic makes little sense to Arellano. The paltry amount she was earning at the airport—her best wage was $7 an hour—was hardly worth the risk of cooperating with terrorists, she says.

“There are people who sell drugs and make easy money—but I didn’t do it,” she said. “I don’t think that a person who works hard is a threat.”

Legal Limbo
For now, Arellano’s fate is in the hands of two federal judges.

On Jan. 23, she pleaded guilty on her misdemeanor charge and now faces up to a year in prison and fines of up to $100,000. U.S. Magistrate Judge Geraldine Soat Brown will determine an appropriate sentence, expected on March 20.

Once sentenced, Arellano will move on to a separate, civil immigration case, in which she will attempt to fend off her deportation.

Meanwhile, she sits in legal limbo: Released from custody but forbidden to work, she has little in the way of income—with her son to support and rent to pay.

So far, support from her Near Southwest Side community has kept her afloat.

Organizers from Casa Aztlán, a social service agency in Pilsen, for instance, have been running a donation drive, which has helped raise about $3,000.

And the support is not just financial: More than 1,000 signatures have been collected for a petition, which will soon be sent to Judge Brown’s chamber.

What hit home in the minds of supporters was seeing her face in the seemingly faceless war on terrorism and recognizing its consequences in the community, said Ana Barbosa, who teaches English at Casa Aztlán. Barbosa said people in the community, including many who are undocumented, understand that they could have been in Arellano’s shoes.

“Most people in the community can imagine what she’s going through. They can feel it,” she said. “That’s why they are very supportive.”

Meanwhile, Arellano says she will keep speaking out.

“What’s most important is that everyone take note of the injustice,” she said. “Now I have criminal charges for wanting to work, to get out ahead. If we are hardworking people, we don’t need to be treated how we are.”

Contributing: Fernando Díaz and Rupa Shenoy.

Headshot of Rui Kaneya

Rui Kaneya

is investigations editor at The Chicago Reporter.