WASHINGTON (AP) - Thousands of illegal immigrants have obtained driver's licenses in three states, federal authorities said Thursday, highlighting a security hole that the Sept. 11 hijackers exploited.
Three employees of Florida's motor vehicles agency were among 52 people arrested in a bribery scam that put driver's licenses in the hands of at least 2,000 illegal immigrants, officials said. The case, announced Thursday, follows similar arrests in Michigan and Maryland over the past week.
"With a valid driver's license, you establish an identity," said Michael Garcia, assistant secretary of the Homeland Security Department.
"There's no way to identify whether that identity is valid - that you're not on a terrorist watch list, that you're not a criminal. It gives you a bona fide," said Garcia, who heads the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency that coordinated the arrests.
He said the cases do not appear to be related and there was no evidence of any terrorist connection.
"What we're looking at is the vulnerability and potential here, and we want to make sure that avenue isn't open to criminals or people posing a threat to our national security," he said.
Eighteen of the 19 hijackers involved in the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, had valid driver's licenses or state-issued identification cards. At least one of those hijackers was in the United States illegally.
Nine of the 19 had Florida driver's licenses; three had ID cards issued by the state.
Obtaining driver's licenses was a priority for the hijackers, said Janice Kephart, counsel to the Sept. 11 commission and an expert on immigration and border security issues. "The object was to appear legitimate," Kephart said.
So far, 58 people face charges in the three license-for-cash cases. They include:
-An employee at Michigan's secretary of state office who was arrested April 20 with two accomplices from Guinea and Iraq on charges of selling hundreds of driver's licenses and other ID documents to illegal immigrants in suburban Detroit. The employee, who issued the licenses, allegedly accepted as little as $25 for allowing applicants to skip a mandatory written driver's test. She has been suspended without pay; the department is reviewing which licenses should be revoked.
-A worker at Maryland's Motor Vehicle Administration and two partners who were arrested April 22. They allegedly charged more than $1,000 to provide driver's licenses or ID cards to about 150 illegal immigrants and other applicants without requiring proof of identity or citizenship.
-In the Florida case, 23 people were charged with criminal fraud and an additional 29 people taken into custody on immigration violations. Of the more than 2,000 licenses issued, 36 were for commercial drivers to operate trucks, and about six to transport hazardous materials, officials said.
The three Florida driver's license examiners charged between $100 and $200 to falsely certify U.S. citizenship for the illegal immigrants, authorities said. Five accomplices recruited immigrants for up to $3,000 per license, officials said.