The 23 allegedly illegal workers were employed by Ideal Staffing Solutions Inc., whose corporate secretary and office manager also were arrested after an eight-month investigation that involved federal, state and Chicago authorities.
According to Elissa A. Brown, a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent, Ideal Staffing has been working on a contract basis for airlines including United Airlines, KLM and Qantas.
"The investigation identifies a vulnerability that could compromise national security, while bringing criminal charges against individuals who built an illegal work force into their business practice," said Brown.
Ideal Staffing officials did not return a telephone message left after business hours Wednesday by The Associated Press.
Much of the investigation centered on the airport security badges issued by the Department of Aviation, said U.S. Attorney Patrick J. Fitzgerald. Agents found that 110 of the 134 badges issued to Ideal Staffing workers did not match the individuals who carried them, he said.
The discrepancies were first noted in March by a U.S. Customs and Border Protection inspector, Fitzgerald said.
"If we are to ensure public safety, we must know who has access to the secure areas of airports," Fitzgerald said. "A fundamental component of airport safety is preventing the use of false identification badges, and punishing those who commit or enable such violations."
An investigation by CBS station WBBM-TV found evidence in garbage dumpsters used by airport contractors that badges were missing. The findings revealed how Chicago's Department of Aviation failed to monitor its badge program.
"If these badges are floating all over the place, is the Department of Aviation doing its job?" Chicago's Inspector General David Hoffman told WBBM. "A fair and important question and a question that needs to be answered from the ongoing investigation."
Mary Gurin, 36, of Carpentersville, and Norinye Benitez, 24, of Franklin Park, were each charged with one federal count of harboring illegal immigrants for gain and one federal count of misuse of Social Security numbers. They were scheduled for a preliminary appearance later Wednesday in U.S. District Court, Brown said.
Benitez is believed to be an illegal immigrant from Mexico, and Gurin employed her and signed her airport badge application while knowing her illegal status, Brown said.
The workers arrested, 21 from Mexico and two from Guatemala, were being held in the Cook County jail. They face state criminal charges and deportation, Brown said.
According to affidavits in a complaint against Gurin and Benitez unsealed Wednesday in U.S. District Court, the applications for the 110 bogus badges listed Social Security numbers that either did not exist or belonged to other individuals, some of whom were dead.
One affidavit from a temporary worker who cooperated with authorities said Benitez told him to look through a box containing about 20 airport security badges and to pick one with a picture that resembled his own face.
The affidavits allege that Ideal Staffing told workers they needed to have identification, but that the documents did not have to be legitimate, and also accused the company of supplying some workers with deactivated badges issued in other names.
Brown, Fitzgerald and other officials declined to answer questions about how workers could use deactivated badges to enter secure areas of the airport, saying that the investigation continued and that not all details could be revealed.
Cook County State's Attorney Richard A. Devine said his office has issued more than 100 arrest warrants in the case.