Oakland Tribune – May 2008
Jose Robles and his brother-in-law went to Tijuana last year on a mission to bring a relative to the United States. Instead, it turned into a bureaucratic tangle that could have threatened Robles’ job as a machinist at the Port of Oakland.
The relative — the brother of Robles’ brother-in-law — didn’t have a valid visa to cross into United States. The three men were detained, photographed, fingerprinted and held overnight. Robles, who is in the country legally, had nothing to do with the man’s offense.
Robles was scared. He had worked as a machinist for shipping line AP Moeller for 17 years.
“They don’t listen to you. You’re nobody over there, when you’re in those places,” Robles said of U.S. border enforcement.
The next day, the man at fault was arrested while Robles and his in-law were released with no further charges pending. But the matter was not closed for Robles.
This year, when the machinist, a member of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, applied for his Transportation Workers Identification Certificate — or TWIC card — his application was denied. Through his union, he contacted the National Employment Law Project — based in Washington, D.C., with an Oakland chapter — whose lawyers were able to sort it out for him.
“I couldn’t sleep at night thinking of all this and wondering how I was going to be able to get my (TWIC) card,” he said, referring to the certificate that is required for all port workers under new Department of Homeland Security regulations. “Probably I’m going to lose my job. My wife was very worried, too. I felt like I had been thrown away.”
But law project staff members checked with the San Diego courts and district attorney and ascertained that Robles hadn’t been charged with any wrongdoing. They demonstrated to the Transportation Security Administration that their client had not been prosecuted or charged. Three weeks later, Robles had his card.
Staff members at the National Employment Law Project say Robles’ situation is not uncommon.
“Almost all appeals to the TWIC program are successful, so that shows you how inaccurate the records are,” said Maurice Emsallem, the National Employment Law Project’s public policy director, who is based in Oakland.
The project’s mission is to shepherd people through background checks they increasingly encounter when looking for jobs with employers who screen for criminal records.
Since Robles works on a maritime terminal at the Port of Oakland, he has to pass the criteria of the new identification document that all workers on federally regulated maritime facilities must acquire by the end of the year.
Administered by the Transportation Security Administration, TWIC cards are designed to weed out possible terrorists from the nation’s ports. The worker’s fingerprints and iris biometrics are scanned into it. A TWIC card is denied to anyone convicted of felonies associated with terrorism.
The Transportation Security Administration, in administering the TWIC program, refers to the FBI’s database to ascertain the applicant’s criminal record. But that database, according to the National Employment Law Project, records arrests, not the outcome of arrests. In other words, according to the Transportation Security Administration, Robles appeared just as guilty as if he had been convicted.
“Lots of FBI records are inaccurate because they have the arrest information, but don’t tell you what happened after that. So a lot of workers are getting denied TWIC,” Emsallem said.
Through the first week of May, Transportation Security Administration has disqualified 4,500 applicants nationwide, fielded 2,000 requests for appeals and granted 1,700 appeals. Only 13 applicants have been disqualified finally.
Nico Melendez, Transportation Security Administration spokesman, called the process “very user-friendly.”
“If a person is disqualified, that’s what the appeals process is for,” he said.
About 8,000 TWIC applications so far have been submitted in the Bay Area, 7,400 from Oakland, according to Lockheed Martin, which holds the contract for administering the application process.
Emsellem said state and federal laws and private companies are increasing their demands for background checks.
“We’ve been doing outreach with the port, maritime and transportatio
n unions,” said National Employment Law Project attorney Laura Moskowitz. “We have a lot of information on our Web site, which people can find.”
The process for appealing also can be found on the Web site by clicking “Second Chance Labor Project.” It is available in seven languages.
For details, contact the National Employment Law Project at 510-663-5700.