JUAREZ, Mexico — We're on the streets of Juarez, a few feet from the bridge leading across the U.S. border. NBC News producers with hidden cameras came here this week to see how easy it is to get fraudulent documents to enter the U.S.
The first offer came within 15 minutes. A man offered U.S. residency and Social Security cards for $1,000.
For about $500, we could rent what is known as a lookalike document — a real "green card" — with a photo of someone resembling our undercover producer. Because the document is authentic, it will pass inspection unless a customs officer notices the photo doesn't match the person.
Another man wants $400 to rent us a lookalike passport long enough to cross the border, where his female partner would retrieve it so it can be used again.
"The investigative aggressiveness of our enforcement agencies, both American and Mexican down around the border, are obviously very weak, because these people are operating so out in the open," says Michael Sheehan, an NBC News terrorism analyst.
Experts say, since 9/11, U.S. border agents have gotten somewhat better at spotting fraudulent documents. Many of those documents end up at a forensics lab outside Washington to be analyzed for the latest ploys.
U.S. officials say so far this year, some 15,000 bogus documents have been confiscated along the southern border. There are no numbers on how many people actually entered the U.S. using fraudulent documents.
"It's a cat and mouse game," says Michael Everitt, director of the Forensic Document Laboratory at U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. "Every time we make an advance, the bad guys, you know, they try to figure out another way to exploit the system."
There's also a problem on this side of the border. Near downtown Los Angeles, fake documents are sold openly.
Many caught, many more get through
This week, a cameraman for Telemundo — NBC's Spanish language network — wore a hidden camera and was repeatedly offered fake drivers' licenses and other documents which illegal immigrants need to find work.
"In 30 minutes I was approached five times," says Abraham Villela.
The story was similar in Mexico, where five vendors offered us fraudulent U.S. documents in only two hours.
U.S. officials admit bogus documents remain a huge problem. More than 100,000 people cross from Juarez to El Paso everyday, and busy U.S. Customs officers do their best to stop imposters from entering and to flag people when their photo IDs don't match. U.S. officials also have conducted sting operations in Mexico and the U.S., and have arrested a number of fraudulent-document ring leaders in the past few months.
Homeland Security officials concede they simply can't stop everyone who uses fraudulent documents. "Being right 100 percent of the time is an unrealistic burden" for the Customs officers on the border, says William "Russ" Knocke, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
But Knocke says Customs and Border Protection officers across the nation have seized move than 90,000 fraudulent documents since 2005, and have apprehended 60,000 people who were trying to enter the U.S. fraudulently. He says that the prevalent use of fraudulent IDs at the borders is a "challenge," and that's why there's a need for better identification and more secure documentation at U.S. ports of entry to try to outsmart the bad guys.