12 illegals arrested at federal building Subcontractor hired immigrants to remove asbestos from Fallon

March 26, 1996|By Scott Higham | Scott Higham,SUN STAFF

Federal agents didn't have to go far to round up another group of illegal immigrants yesterday: They found them working in the federal building in downtown Baltimore.

The agents arrested a dozen immigrants removing asbestos from the Fallon Federal Building at Hopkins Plaza. All were certified by the state to remove asbestos, and all were carrying federal photo identification cards, giving them access to what is supposed to be a secure building.

"To find illegal immigrants working in a federal building is a bit of an irony," said Benedict J. Ferro, director of the Immigration and Naturalization Service in Maryland.

A representative of asbestos workers went further.

"It's unbelievable," said Keith Wagner, business agent for Local 24 of the Heat and Frost Insulators and Asbestos Workers.

About dawn, INS agents showed up at the service elevators of the granite-faced building. They questioned workers and arrested 12 men: one from Mexico, one from Colombia, five from Honduras and five from Guatemala.

The immigrants were employed by Hudak Insulation, a Baltimore firm also known as Hudak Asbestos Removal, according to the INS. If federal agents can prove that Hudak hired the workers knowing they were illegal immigrants, the firm can be barred from federal contracts and fined.

Hudak representatives did not return phone calls for comment yesterday.

The firm is the asbestos subcontractor at the Fallon building. Hudak was hired by Grunley Construction, which won a $23 million federal contract to renovate the office tower -- a few blocks from the INS Maryland field office and across the street from the U.S. District Courthouse.

"We certainly will look into this and deal with it," said Ken Grunley, president of Grunley Construction.

When INS searched the belongings of the illegal immigrants yesterday, they were surprised by what they found: state certification cards permit ting the workers to remove asbestos in Maryland, and photo identification cards issued by the federal government.

The state Department of the Environment certifies asbestos workers through 27 approved centers around Maryland. Contractors send workers to the classes, and there are no residency requirements for certifications, said Quinten Banks, a spokesman for the agency.

"It's Hudak's responsibility to check residency," Mr. Banks said.

INS agents also found federal ID cards. They were an unusual discovery, particularly since the federal government supposedly stepped up security because of the April 1995 bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City.

The 17-story federal building in Baltimore houses hundreds of federal workers employed by agencies such as the Internal Revenue Service, the Department of Veterans Affairs, and the General Services Administration -- the agency that awarded the renovation contract and issued the ID cards.

GSA managers say the illegal immigrants apparently used counterfeit immigration green cards to obtain identification passes. They say they plan to talk to INS agents to find out how they can detect counterfeit cards.

"The only thing we could do is ask INS if there is anything to look for when people present a green card," said Paul Chistolini, regional administrator for GSA.

After the arrests, the illegal workers were taken to an INS processing office. Escorted in handcuffs from a blue Ford Econoline van into the brick building, some of the men seemed unfazed by their arrests.

One even smiled, giving a thumbs-up sign as agents led him away.

INS agents gave the workers a choice: Face deportation hearings or go home. At least two men agreed to head back to their countries and were flown to a Texas processing center. The others were taken to the Howard County Detention Center.

The men joined 28 illegal immigrants arrested last week after INS agents found them working at construction projects in Anne Arundel County, including at Fort Meade -- an Army post that houses sensitive military operations.

INS agents say the arrests prove that Maryland is a popular destination for immigrants. The state's economy is doing well, they said, and word is spreading that money is to be made for illegal workers in Maryland.

The men arrested yesterday were making $11 an hour, a lucrative wage for someone from Mexico or Latin America. Federal agents say the work should go to U.S. citizens.

"It hurts," said Mr. Ferro of the INS. "These are not jobs that permanent residents of the United States wouldn't want. These are jobs that could be filled by the unemployed in Maryland."

Pub Date: 3/26/96

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