The I.N.S. raids airport kitchens. (Forced Departure)

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ONE DAY THIS PAST SPRING at the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, immigrant employees of LSG Sky Chefs received a notice from their bosses to show up at a company meeting April 18. The employees were in for a surprise. The meeting was actually with Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) officers posing as Sky Chefs managers. More INS agents showed up and arrested twelve undocumented workers from Mexico.

Sky Chefs happened to be in the midst of negotiations with the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees (HERE) union over medical coverage and other issues. Dana Wise of HERE, Local 8, is reluctant to state outright that the Sky Chefs-INS stunt was a union-busting tactic or related to negotiations. But Wise will say it’s “highly inappropriate.”

“Sky Chefs has taken a very hard line approach in response to workers’ efforts to improve their working conditions,” Wise says.

The INS raid was part of Operation Tarmac, the federal government’s big push to make airports safe after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Reaching beyond metal-detector checkpoints and baggage inspections, the INS has gone into kitchens and other behind-the-scenes areas where many immigrant workers had been making a stable living.

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By the end of September, the INS had made 792 arrests resulting in 563 criminal charges, says Nancy Cohen, an agency spokeswoman.

The union maintains that if the objective of Operation Tarmac is to “ensure that travelers have confidence in their safety and security,” as an INS official told Congress last June, the emphasis on kitchen workers is misguided.

“None of the food-service workers arrested by the INS had access to the tarmac, and all of the food they make is subject to security checks,” Wise says.

“The worst thing they can do is deliver a bad plate of food,” quips Peter Rachleff, a labor historian at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Sky Chefs won’t talk specifically about this case. But it did issue a statement. “We are fully cooperating with the INS and all federal agencies as it relates to the security of our facilities,” the statement says.

It’s not the only company the INS has found to be cooperative. Most of the 2,900 businesses audited by the INS in 100 airports nationwide have assisted the agency, says spokeswoman Cohen.

“The feedback we’re getting is quite positive,” she says. “They’re glad we’re there. They’re not experts in fraudulent documents.”

Rachleff says service workers had made gains in airports over the last few years. “Then 9/11 came, and the industry slid backward,” he says. “The focus on safety at airports has unfortunately been a focus on the immigrant status of workers.”

“Operation Tarmac and other INS actions can have a chilling effect,” Wise acknowledges. For unions, they create “an incredibly hostile environment.”

Nathan Marquez spent more than fourteen years working for Sky Chefs at the airport in Los Angeles. He worked his way up from about $6 an hour to $13.50. He and his wife, with her part-time job, were able to earn a living for their three children.

Then, one day this summer, he (along with many other airport workers) received a letter instructing him to report for a meeting at 9 A.M. on August 22. The letter promised “a team will be onsite to provide federally mandated training.”

“They told me I have to bring my documents and badge,” Marquez says through an interpreter, union organizer Rosalba Mata. When he showed up, they made him fill out some paperwork with his driver’s license and Social Security number.

“Then, when I finished filling out the application, they told me I had to go to another room,” he recounts. Half a dozen INS officers were waiting. It turns out that though Marquez became a U.S. citizen three years ago, he had once used a bad Social Security number.

“They grabbed me,” he says. “I didn’t know what was happening. I thought I went into the wrong room and I wasn’t supposed to be there. I asked them, you know, What's wrong?' Then they told me, Don’t worry. We’re going to let you know what is happening soon.’ Then they handcuffed me.”

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Marquez was detained for hours before a federal court in Los Angeles released him to his wife on a signature bond that night. He sorted out government paperwork to show that, indeed, he had obtained citizenship in 1999. The charges of using a false Social Security number were dropped.

But when he tried to report back to work, he didn’t have the security badge that was confiscated during the arrests. Marquez couldn’t afford the $100 replacement cost. As a result, he could not report back to work. At the end of September, Sky Chefs sent him a letter informing him he had been fired.

Marquez says he gave Sky Chefs his new valid number, but that number never made it into his file. Sky Chefs communications director at the company’s U.S. headquarters in Dallas, Dalene Nichols, says the company won’t comment on personnel matters and would not respond to questions about Marquez’s case.

“I’m devastated because I have to support my family and pay the rent and I don’t have my job,” Marquez says. “My only problem was trying to work, trying to make a living for my family, and I don’t think I deserve this treatment.”

The union is trying to get him his job back. Organizer Mata is helping fourteen others with similar stories, only they were residents, not citizens.

“It’s a very difficult and sad situation,” says Tom Walsh of Local 11 in L.A. “We have some people working over twenty years, and some of them have been legal for a number of years, but they were arrested and federal agents treated them like they were terrorists.”

Actions like the INS raids shake up workers and their unions. “There’s a long history of employers relying on government to undercut workers’ efforts to organize,” Rachleff says.

“The tarmac raids represent an experiment,” says Arnoldo Garcia of the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights. “How far can they push to enforce laws that have already been failures?”

He and the union organizers advocate changing immigration laws. “We think legalization of undocumented workers is the best way to provide both security against terrorist attacks and economic security for our communities,” Wise says.

The economy relies on these immigrant workers. “The fact that undocumented workers are in secure areas shows how essential they are,” Garcia says.

Marquez hopes his former employer will decide he’s essential enough to rehire. Since he was fired, he and his family have eked by with the help of the union and relatives.

“Day by day, it’s getting harder to survive without a job,” Marquez says. “When I got my citizenship, I swore that I will defend the United States and fight for this country, and in exchange, I get this.”

Erin Middlewood is a journalist in the state of Washington.

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