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Sellers of fake immigration documents aren’t worried about call for new IDs

Peter Prengaman
Nick Ut / The Associated Press / Confiscated fake and blank identification documents are displayed May 23 at an Immigration and Customs Enforcement office in Los Angeles.
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LOS ANGELES (AP) – Luis Hernandez is laughing as he sells fake drivers licenses and Social Security cards to illegal immigrants near a park known for shady deals.

The joke, to him, is the government’s promise to put people like him out of business with a tamperproof ID card.

“One way or another, we’ll always find a way,” said Hernandez, 35, a sidewalk pitchman who is part of a complex counterfeiting network operating around MacArthur Park, a teeming area near downtown.

No matter what the federal government does, sellers vow to keep providing authentic-looking IDs for as little as $150, to anyone who wants them.

Some coming to MacArthur Park are teens who want an ID for bars and buying booze. Others are ex-convicts whose criminal records make working under their real names difficult.

But most are illegal immigrants who need work documents – documents that employers looking for cheap labor rarely scrutinize.

As Congress struggles to reform laws that affect the nation’s estimated 11 million illegal immigrants, one central question is how to crack down on fake documents and punish the employers who accept them.

President Bush has suggested foreign workers carry a single ID that includes a fingerprint. The House and Senate, meanwhile, passed bills that would force employers to verify job seekers’ Social Security numbers with a phone call and immigration status through an electronic database.

“The key to controlling this situation is turning off the magnet of jobs that attracts illegal immigrants,” said Mark Krikorian, head of the Center for Immigration Studies, a think tank that supports tighter immigration controls.

Many businesses with a long-standing “don’t ask, don’t tell” stance got a jolt in April when federal authorities arrested nearly 1,200 illegal immigrants and a handful of managers working at IFCO Systems plants from Southern California to New York. More than half of the 5,800 employees at the pallet and crate manufacturing company in 2005 had invalid or mismatched Social Security numbers, authorities said.

Despite that example, the raid was an exception. Work site arrests have fallen sharply in recent years, from 2,849 in fiscal year 1999 to 1,145 last year, according to U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement.

Immigration officials said the fake document business has become increasingly difficult to stop.

In the past, authorities could often break up a network by raiding a central “document mill” where Social Security cards, passports and licenses might be drying on a large printing press, said Kevin Jeffery, deputy special agent in charge with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Los Angeles.

Now documents are made with illegal software on laptop computers. That mobility makes them harder to bust.

“With a computer and a printer, you are in business,” Jeffery said.

Authorities can be stymied by complex delivery networks.

Sellers who openly pitch passers-by don’t carry any documents. Instead, they negotiate prices ranging as high as $300 for a package containing a driver’s license, Social Security card and “green card.”

Next, they send the buyer to a less crowded area a few blocks away. A picture is taken, and a runner collects the money before the two contacts split in different directions.

The picture and cash change hands a few times before arriving at an apartment where a laptop, printer and laminating machine spit out the documents.

Within an hour, another runner, perhaps a young man dressed as a student or even an elderly woman, delivers the documents near the site of the original deal.

Hernandez, an illegal immigrant from Mexico, said it’s not easy work. The biggest threats to his business are disgruntled customers, undercover agents who record deals with cameras the size of a button, and gang members demanding to be paid for protection. The international Salvadoran gang MS-13 was born in MacArthur Park’s surrounding neighborhoods.

When Hernandez senses a customer might be a police officer, he calls out “7/11” in English, and his underlings disappear. If a seller is arrested, others collect money to bail him out of jail.

“We are not trying to do anything bad,” said Sergio Guitierrez, 35, an illegal immigrant from Mexico who quietly says “IDs here” to people walking by the park. “Immigrants just need to work.”

Sellers said they can charge Americans more money, but they are more likely to return and complain if unsatisfied.

An American woman who appeared to be in her 30s recently returned to the park holding an authentic-looking California driver’s license with a split corner.

“This license you gave me is falling apart,” she told a document seller.

Five men quickly shuffled her beneath the overhang of a nearby building and promised a new license.

Sellers said they’ll never be stopped because their product will always be in demand.

“This is the government’s fault,” said Maria Zuniga, 55, an illegal immigrant from Honduras who sells and transports documents. “They won’t even give us a number to work or a driver’s license.”


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