Luis Hernandez just laughs as he sells fake driver’s licenses and Social Security cards to illegal immigrants near a park known for shady deals.
The joke, to him and others in his line of work, is the government’s promise to put people like him out of business with a tamperproof national ID card.
“One way or another, we’ll always find a way,” said Hernandez, 35, a sidewalk operator who is part of a complex counterfeiting network around MacArthur Park, where authentic-looking IDs are available for as little as $150.
Some of those coming to MacArthur Park are teenagers who want a fake ID so they can go to bars and drink. Others are ex-convicts whose criminal records make working under their real names difficult. But most are illegal immigrants who need work documents.
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, have passed bills that would force employers to verify job seekers’ Social Security numbers with a phone call and immigration status through an electronic database.
'Don't ask, don't tell' attitude
Many employers, eager for cheap labor, have a “don’t ask, don’t tell” attitude toward their employees’ immigration status and do not check their papers.
In one indication of the size of the problem, federal authorities in April arrested nearly 1,200 illegal immigrants and a few 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.
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 agent in charge of 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 also be stymied by complex delivery networks.
Up to $300 for a package of IDs
Around MacArthur Park, sellers who openly offer fake IDs do not actually carry any of the documents. Instead, they negotiate prices 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, where a picture is taken and the customer pays up.
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, a runner — perhaps a young man dressed as a student, or an elderly woman — delivers the documents near the site of the original deal.
Hernandez, an illegal immigrant from Mexico, said it is not easy work. The biggest threats are disgruntled customers, undercover agents who record deals with cameras the size of a button, and gang members demanding protection money.
When Hernandez senses a customer might be a police officer, he calls out “7/11,” 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 sells IDs. “Immigrants just need to work.”
“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.”