One woman's illegal journey

Marketplace for illegal documents?
This south Minneapolis parking lot is rumored to be a hotspot for the buying and selling of fake identification for illegal immigrants.
MPR Photo/Ambar Espinoza

A particular shopping center in south Minneapolis is known for more than its low prices. Rumor has it that in this parking lot there's a different kind of transaction going on -- people are buying green cards, passports and Social Security numbers.

Distributors, called runners, keep the documents in their trunks. There could be whole neighborhoods of fake identities in the back of one of the cars.

Erica, an illegal immigrant from Mexico, describes how she crossed into the United States six years ago with the help of "coyotes," who provided false identification papers and transportation. She lives in Minnesota.
MPR Photo/Ambar Espinoza

Six years ago, Erica was also hiding in the trunk of a car. She uses a false name since what she was doing there is illegal. She was five months pregnant and it was the last leg of a long journey -- one she had been trying to make for several months. Erica is from Mexico, and for her, staying there was not an option.

"I was a single mom. I didn't see a future in Mexico because in my culture, single moms are looked down upon," Erica says. "I wouldn't have been able to support my son financially. The options just weren't there."

Erica now lives in Minnesota with her son. The first two times she tried to cross into the U.S. she went by foot. She was led by hired guides known as "coyotes." She was caught both times and sent back to Mexico.

Then she found the professionals.

"They asked me to be well-dressed. They took us to this big house with large gates and large windows, and all of the illegals of the world wanting cross into the U.S. were there."

Erica met these coyotes in Tijuana, and they didn't come cheap. But she noticed the difference right away.

Place of business
Erica spent part of her journey to Minnesota in the trunk of a car. People also do business out of their trunks -- selling false ID documents to illegals. There could be whole neighborhoods of fake identities in the back of one of these cars.
MPR Photo/Ambar Espinoza

"They had separate rooms for men and women. They had extra clothes. They had desks, and secretaries who falsify documents of all kinds. They had access to legal Mexican documents and American legal documents. I don't know, but these people performed miracles," says Erica.

When she entered the ID factory in Tijuana, Erica was another poor small-town girl looking to get out. But when she left, she was a wealthy Mexican government official. She had the look, the clothes, even the legal documents to prove it.

Instead of the usual coyote leading her through the desert, this one was dressed as a cab driver. He was supposedly driving Erica around on a shopping trip in the U.S. The cab was filled with new clothes and shopping bags from expensive stores.

"I had proof that I had money, I had shopping receipts from stores in San Diego," Erica recalls. "I had the smallest proof necessary to pass through immigration without a problem. The coyotes didn't want to get caught so they covered all of their bases."

She remembers getting nervous, but the coyote had remedies for even that.

There's a lot of illegal people, and the illegal person who does real crime pays for it. But if you're good, then life should be good, no matter where you are.

"He gave me a pill to calm my nerves. I'm not sure what kind of pill that was, but I felt great. He controlled us and helped us cross," says Erica. "If you're crossing the border by car, coyotes warn that there are cameras everywhere. They'd tell us to start laughing or start talking about shopping, not to get nervous. He'd reassure us nothing bad was going to happen. He was intelligent. He wasn't like other coyotes."

Once in the U.S., Erica rode with a series of drivers who helped move her through southern California. On the last leg of her journey, though, she and two others were crammed into the trunk of a car as a precautionary measure. She eventually arrived safely at her destination in Los Angeles.

This kind of operation isn't unusual, says Mark Cangemi of the Upper Midwestern bureau of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. He says that in recent years there have been reports of professional networks like these growing, and even competing against each other.

"It's organized crime," says Cangemi. "There are family groups on the border whose whole livelihood is based on smuggling. It could be people, it could be narcotics, or both."

Cangemi says because of tighter border security, smuggling organizations have had to adapt to survive. The result is that these networks have become far more sophisticated, sometimes with operations in several different countries.

Many of those networks reach as far north as Minnesota. Cangemi says there is a good reason why the number of illegal immigrants has been growing in the Midwest.

Smuggler's highway
Interstate 35, which runs from Laredo, Texas, to Duluth, Minnesota, is a major route for smugglers of drugs and illegal immigrants.
Map courtesy of Mapquest

"If you take out a map and look at Interstate 35, it starts in Laredo, Texas and ends in Duluth, Minnesota. That's a major smuggling corridor. We see a replication of what's happening on the southern border happening in the Midwest," says Cangemi.

People like Erica can't fully escape these networks, even once they are here. Soon Erica's fake green card will "expire" and she will have to come to a spot like this parking lot to buy a new one.

In the past six years, Erica has built an American life her herself and her son. She has a job, pays taxes and her son is in school. She says she hates the thought of dealing with the fake ID merchants again.

"This whole process makes you feel like a criminal, like you're the worst being in the world, like you killed, like you robbed. That's how we feel. To some extent, we're always hiding."

But Erica doesn't see herself as a criminal.

"When time goes by, you realize that an illegal document is just that, and what matters is what you make of your life," says Erica. "There's a lot of illegal people, and the illegal person who does real crime pays for it. But if you're good, then life should be good, no matter where you are."

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