The latest roundup of illegal immigrants caught working in the US with fraudulent identifications – the largest single such work-site action ever – raises new questions about a link between illegal immigration and the growing problem of identity theft.
Federal raids Tuesday at six meat-processing plants owned by Swift & Co. in six states resulted in the arrests of 1,282 people for immigration violation – with 65 also charged with identify theft or other criminal charges.
The investigation is continuing, say officials with US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), with the hope that some of the newly arrested workers will lead law officers to "document rings" that provided the stolen identities. The 10-month operation began in February, when ICE learned that "large numbers" of undocumented immigrants might be using Social Security numbers assigned to US citizens.
"We believe that the genuine identities of possibly hundreds of US citizens are being stolen or hijacked by criminal organizations and sold to illegal aliens in order to gain unlawful employment in this country," said Julie Myers, ICE assistant secretary. She called it "a disturbing front in the war against illegal immigration."
The fraudulent document business has long been a thorn in the side of immigration officials, making it hard for them to crack down on companies for knowingly hiring illegal workers. Indeed, even as ICE agents conducted Tuesday's raids at the Swift plants, a joint task force in Arizona – made up of state, federal, and local law- enforcement officials – was arresting 12 suspects and seized numerous fake drivers' licenses, resident alien cards, Social Security cards, and vehicle titles.
Metropolitan Phoenix, a major immigrant-smuggling hub, has become a place where the false ID business is thriving, law-enforcement officers say. They estimate that 1,000 to 1,500 "coyotes," or smugglers, stash thousands of undocumented immigrants in drop houses throughout the valley, where they wait until false identification and transportation can be arranged to places as far away as Seattle and Miami.
"I would say that 90 percent of the transactions dealing with the sale of human cargo, those smuggled across the [Arizona] border, occur right here," Angel Rascon-Rubio, an ICE special agent, testified at a federal court hearing last year.
The Phoenix area is ideal for smugglers, officials say, because it is fairly easy to reach from Mexico but far enough from the border to avoid border patrol enforcement. It has broad access to the rest of the country via air and car. Moreover, the large Hispanic neighborhoods provide cover for drop houses and new immigrants.
On one of Phoenix's quiet residential streets lined with stucco tract homes live two men who came to the US illegally but gained legal status – along with some 3 million others – under the federal 1986 amnesty program. David and Raul, who will give only first names, are in the business of helping newly arrived illegal immigrants acquire fake documents.
They are not part of an organized crime family, they say – just part of a network of established immigrants who help others attain what they've achieved. They are, in effect, the go-betweens from those who bring the immigrants and those who make the fake ID papers – a service they say they provide for free.
"A coyote will call and say, 'Does your boss need more workers?' or 'Can you help get this person some papers?' " says David, whose main job is as a landscaper. "It's easy. I'll have a number for a [document] guy and call him. We'll meet at the major intersection out here, say, in half an hour. I give him $50 or $100, whatever he's asking, a photo of the person, and a name," he adds. "About 45 minutes later, he'll call me to come meet him on the same corner with the papers – a Social Security card and a green card."
If that won't work, David adds, he drives to the nearest Food City, a chain that specializes in Hispanic goods. There, he says, he just asks around. "There are even guys there who'll hand you business cards – they're in the business of providing fake documents."
Raul, who works in construction, says it's not uncommon to get a call from a coyote in the morning and, by afternoon, have jobs and fake documents for the newly arrived illegals. The two won't tell how many illegal immigrants they help, but say they get called at least weekly.
All of the arrests at the Swift plants Tuesday targeted illegal immigrants who held actual – not fake – Social Security numbers. Many businesses that make use of immigrant labor participate in a national test program for employers called Basic Pilot, an online system to verify employees' Social Security numbers.
But the fake-documents manufacturers are wise to this, say David and Raul. In Arizona, they assign Social Security numbers that begin with 601 – numbers the government apparently assigns people from Arizona. Employers then don't readily recognize a fake document, and, the men say, it takes at least a year for the government to recognize a duplicate number. That means the illegal immigrant can work in the US for up to a year before being sent home.
Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano set up an Arizona Fraudulent Identification Task Force in July 2005 as part of a crackdown on crime related to illegal immigration. Since then, the task force has focused in part on fraudulent documents. In doing so, it has issued more than 100 search warrants resulting in 178 defendants charged with 1,400 crimes, says Leesa Morrison, director of the Arizona Department of Liquor Licenses and Control.
"Most astounding," adds Ms. Morrison, "is that in this short period our undercover agents have purchased over 1,000 fraudulent immigration documents. What's frightening is that [they] are able to purchase a three-pack – a driver's license, a Social Security card, and a permanent-resident card – for about $160 on the street."
April 2005: In Florida, immigration agents arrested 52, including several state Department of Motor Vehicles officials, alleged to be part of a scheme to make and sell fake driver's licenses and hazmat licenses to more than 2,000 illegal immigrants. The same month, other sweeps revealed fraudulent license schemes in Michigan and Maryland.
May 2005: In Mississippi, Cedric Carpenter and Lamont Ranson pleaded guilty to conspiring to sell fake documents to members of Abu Sayyaf, a Philippines-based Islamist terrorist group.
February 2006: A lieutenant in the Mexican-based Castorena family organization, a fraudulent document outfit that controls cells in 33 states, was sentenced in Denver to 11 years in prison. More than 50 members of this international counterfeit operation have been prosecuted in Denver alone. Its leader, Pedro Castorena-Ibarra, was arrested in June by Mexican officers and is awaiting extradition to the US.
March 2006: Agents busted seven counterfeit-document labs in Los Angeles and charged 11 people with supplying fraudulent immigration and identity documents.
June 2006: In Boston, immigration agents arrested nine people accused of running a phony document ring. They seized document-forging tools and six computers at five homes. The sweeps led to the arrests of 13 undocumented Brazilian and Guatemalan nationals.
Sources: US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Associated Press