LOS ANGELES — Among boisterous vendors hawking ice cream, hot dogs and assorted wares from carts in the heart of Los Angeles, an illicit business quietly caters to undocumented immigrants eager to work in the United States. Its purveyors softly call out, “Mica, mica,” Spanish slang for the laminated cards they are offering to potential clients.
“What do you need?” asked a woman on a crowded sidewalk facing MacArthur Park, the epicenter of the trade, clutching a notebook in which she prepared to jot down an order. “She can get you anything fast,” added a man who was with her.
A set of documents — a Social Security card and a green card — can be obtained for $80 to $200, depending on the customer’s bargaining power and the quality of the forgery. The fakes are a worthwhile investment for undocumented immigrants, opening the possibility of employment at a restaurant, hotel and many other establishments in the country’s second-largest city and beyond.
The failure by Congress to agree on new immigration legislation or viable guest worker programs to meet the demands of the United States economy has ensured the survival of the counterfeit identification industry, which sprouted after lawmakers last passed immigration reform, in 1986. The Immigration Reform and Control Act legalized undocumented immigrants in the country since 1982 and also prohibited employers from hiring unauthorized workers.
“One of the most predictable unintended consequences of our failure to address the demand side of labor migration is to create a robust false documents industry,” said Wayne Cornelius, a migration scholar at the University of California, San Diego.
“Good quality false documents don’t come cheap, but migrants consider it a necessary expense to gain access to U.S. employment,” said Mr. Cornelius, who is director emeritus of the university’s Mexican Migration Field Research Program.
About eight million undocumented immigrants participate in the United States labor force. A 50-year low in the unemployment rate means there are plenty of jobs for newcomers — and employers willing to hire them.
Norm Langer, president of Langer’s Delicatessen across from MacArthur Park, readily admits that it is likely that he unknowingly employs undocumented immigrants.
“They need me and I need them. There’s nobody else to do the work,” said Mr. Langer, whose 71-year-old eatery, a Los Angeles institution, sits at a corner where the counterfeit trade unfolds and is sometimes captured on its security cameras.
Asked if he crosschecks documents presented by new hires, Mr. Langer retorted, “I’m not here to do the government’s detective work.”
Both Victorina Morales, an undocumented immigrant on the club’s payroll, and Sandra Diaz, a legal resident employed there for three years when she was undocumented, said they used counterfeits with made-up numbers. Two other former housekeepers at the club, who are in the country unlawfully, said they were hired in the same manner.
A fifth worker who also came forward this month, Emma Torres, said in an interview that management at the golf club knew her documents were fraudulent when she was hired in 2015, to work first as a housekeeper and later in the kitchen.
Her documents were easy to obtain, said Ms. Torres, who is from Ecuador. A fellow immigrant gave her the phone number of a broker, who told her to meet someone at a restaurant who would be dressed in a yellow shirt and cap. Ms. Torres said she gave the person her name and birth date, two pictures and $150. A few hours later, she said, she returned to collect a Social Security card and a green card.
“If you don’t have documents, you don’t get work — unless you want to be paid cash,” Ms. Torres said.
In recent years, peddlers of phony documents have increasingly moved from immigrant enclaves, like Pico-Union in Los Angeles and Roosevelt Avenue in Queens, to private residences and the internet. Production has migrated from primitive printing shops — with typewriter, scissors and laminate — to operations equipped with top-notch computers and printers that churn out authentic-looking counterfeits, complete with security features like holograms.
The illicit industry also flourishes with the help of social media and sophisticated technology, and some players operate across international boundaries. Payment methods outside the traditional banking sector, such as Venmo, have become common, according to investigators. Marketing is discreet, sometimes over the dark web.
“Staying ahead of counterfeiters is a constant battle. We are seeing document mills becoming more complex,” said Christopher Kuemmerle, a Homeland Security Investigations agent at Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Los Angeles who supervises a document and benefit task force composed of local, state and federal agencies.
Last year, United States Citizenship and Immigration Services began issuing green cards with security enhancements, such as embedded holographic images, in an attempt to deter fraud.
Because counterfeiters may not be capable of replicating the exact features, their green cards would probably not pass official inspection at United States ports of entry, such as airports. Employers, however, might not be able to tell the difference.
But pressure on employers has also mounted, further fueling the counterfeit document boom. The Trump administration has stepped up raids and audits of companies believed to hire undocumented immigrants.
Companies that have federal contracts must use E-Verify, an electronic system to snuff out fake IDs. In addition, 22 states mandate that at least some private and public employers use the system. (New Jersey and California are not among them.)
Determined to get work, immigrants in the country unlawfully are increasingly acquiring the authentic documents of legal residents or citizens of the United States to elude the heightened screening.
Puerto Rico, home to more than three million people with mainly Spanish surnames, has become a hub for networks trafficking in genuine documents, in part because birth certificates there are widely circulated for a variety of uses and relatively easy to make use of. “This is the market where stolen identities come out of,” said Timothy Henwood, the first assistant United States attorney for Puerto Rico.
“Once you get a real birth certificate from Puerto Rico, you can get a real Social Security card and driver’s license. You assume that stolen identity and integrate into society and the job market,” Mr. Henwood said.
In February, Mr. Henwood’s office prosecuted a Dominican national who pleaded guilty to participating in a scheme to steal and sell the identities of Puerto Ricans to unlawful residents of the United States. The defendant, Reynaldo Rodriguez-Canario, said he worked with co-conspirators on the mainland who sold Social Security cards and other documents for prices ranging from $500 to $1,300 per set.
In Boston, also in February, the United States attorney’s office and ICE announced that a federal judge had ordered sentences ranging from eight months to two years for several people who sold stolen Puerto Rican IDs to undocumented immigrants in Massachusetts.
In July last year, 25 people were charged in federal court in Boston with using the identities of citizens in Puerto Rico to obtain documents and public benefits, such as Medicaid, unemployment and housing subsidies, according to the United States attorney’s office in Massachusetts.
The counterfeit networks thrive within specific ethnic groups. Homeland Security investigators have encountered mills that produce passports and documents for Chinese nationals. Communication usually happens over WeChat, a Chinese messaging app, which is tough to intercept.
“The targets we are pursuing are driving nice cars, living in nice homes and making a good living. There is little overhead. They are making pure profit,” said Mr. Kuemmerle, the agent at Homeland Security Investigations.
Nationwide, the unit’s work to take down document counterfeit rings resulted in 1,258 arrests, 997 indictments and 710 convictions in the 2018 fiscal year.
Southern California is the region with the biggest population of undocumented immigrants in the country, and many migrants who cross the border pass through Los Angeles on their way eastward — and stop at MacArthur Park.
During a recent afternoon at the busy park, document sellers solicited customers by brandishing their thumb and indicator fingers wide enough apart to convey the shape of a card.
When a pair of police officers appeared, they swiftly took leave of their posts.
Source: “Los Angeles” – Google News