For nearly six years after he got out of prison in 2000, 40-year-old Ernie Johnson kept coming up empty whenever he applied for a job. Even as he checked the “yes” box on job application forms that asked whether he had ever been convicted of a felony, he knew his chance of landing a job was slim to none.
About a year ago, he got the break he was looking for when Oakland-based AB Trucking hired him as a driver to haul cargo in and out of the port of Oakland.
“Man, it was tough, having that felony conviction on my record,” said Johnson, the father of three teenagers. “Having this job means no more worry. It means security. It means relief,” even though the commute from his home in Stockton takes him more than an hour each day.
But Johnson and scores of ex-offenders like him—as well as undocumented workers who work at the nation’s ports—could be forced to quit their jobs when the federal government this fall begins enforcing a program approved by Congress in 2002 to make U.S. ports safer.
The Transportation Worker Identification Credential (TWIC) program will require the more than 750,000 port employees, truckers, mariners, longshoremen and others who require unescorted access to secure areas of ports to have background checks before being issued cards with their biometric data.
Workers must pass a Transportation Security Administration (TSA)-administered threat assessment in order to receive an ID card, which will contain the worker’s fingerprint, digital photograph and biographical information. The card, which will be good for five years, will include technology that can be read remotely by port employees and security.
Although Congress ordered TSA to develop the identification card in 2002, the Bush administration has been delaying its implementation because it wanted to make sure the infrastructure was in place so as not to interrupt “the flee flow of commerce,” said a TSA spokesperson. The mandatory enrollment in the program is expected to take 18 months to complete.
A provision in the TWIC program will make undocumented workers ineligible for the card. That could mean the 30 to 40 percent of undocumented truck drivers working the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles could likely lose their jobs, according to environmental activist Jesse Marquez. The same goes for those working the 325 or so other official ports of entry in the United States.
“It’s going to be ‘aloha’ for those who are undocumented,” said Ray King, general manager of marine operations and marketing for the Port of Oakland.
Marquez worries about the consequences of this. “It’s going to bring the fleet to a stop,” he warned, “because they won’t have enough truck drivers.”
Another provision will allow convicted felons to be designated as a “terrorism security risk” if they’ve been incarcerated within the last five years, or convicted of a felony within seven years of enrolling for the program.
TWIC’s website describes the act as a “comprehensive national system of transportation security enhancements to protect our maritime community against the threat of terrorism, requiring federal agencies, ports and vessel owners to take numerous steps to upgrade security.”
“(TWIC) ignores rehabilitation,” pointed out Chuck Mack, national port director in New York for the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. “I don’t think it makes a lot of sense.”
Bishara Costandi places ex-offenders in trucking jobs through his organization Outside Lane, Inc.
“How can we paint with a broad brush everyone who comes out of prison as a threat to security?” asked Costandi, founder and project director of the four-month-old Oakland-based Outside Lane, Inc., a non-profit that finds trucking jobs for the “formerly incarcerated.” Costandi blasted the new program as “just another form of control” by Homeland Security.
Costandi has placed truck drivers with such trucking companies as AB Trucking, where nine of the 12 truck drivers currently on its payroll are ex-offenders.
“The drivers I hire are mostly parolees, and mostly black,” said AB Trucking owner Bill Aboudi. “I want to give them a chance. If you give them a chance, they’ll produce for you.”
John Casselberry, 50, convicted of drug possession a few years ago, was a parolee when Aboudi hired him as a truck driver in 2005. Within months, he was promoted to recruiter and trainer. Casselberry vehemently opposes the TWIC program.
“I wouldn’t want to have a biometric card,” he asserted, shaking his dreadlocks. “Why does the government need to know so much about me for me to drive a truck? I think it’s invasive. What next? Do I have to wear a chip, or have a barcode?”
Johnson feels likewise. Visibly upset when he learned about the TWIC program last week, he wondered how Congress even approved such a program in the first place. “Man, everybody should get a second chance,” he said, barely able to hide the fear in his voice. “I know a lot of former felons working the port. I mean, what’s going to happen to all of us?”