No slowdown in illegal document trade

Document marketplace
Hawkers frequently use the parking lot at a Minneapolis K Mart to sell micas, or false documents illegal immigrants need to get work.
MPR Photo/Art Hughes

If immigration officials wanted the Worthington raid to send a message to those selling fake documents, it didn't reach a group of four young men in the Lake St. K Mart parking lot. The site is a notorious spot for scoring false IDs. It was even mentioned in a New York Times article last summer.

When an MPR reporter approached the men, one offers a one-word question -- "mica?" which is Spanish slang for an ID that might include a drivers license, a permanent residency card or a Social Security number.

After learning the reporter's identity, the man said he did not want to be named or talk on tape, fearing for his safety.

He admitted to selling the fake IDs, although he insisted they aren't stolen. He said the IDs are the only way some people can get work, and he's glad to help them even though it's illegal.

The bulk of people are just here to work, and trying to find some kind of document that will permit them to work.

He said the raid in Worthington will do little to slow down the trade in false documents, because thousands more people will replace the hundreds that are arrested.

Any immigrant caught without documents faces deportation. But using a stolen ID or duplicate Social Security number can land a person in prison.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials say, in this recent operation, about 65 of the nearly 1,300 workers arrested are facing criminal identity theft charges. All the others could be shipped back to their home countries if they cannot produce documents.

Katherine Fennelly, a professor of public affairs at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs, said framing the raid as a crackdown on identity theft is a red herring.

Fennelly, who specializes in immigration studies, said illegal immigrants assume false identities to subsist, not to run up another person's credit card account.

"As there are with any group, there are going to be people who are breaking the law intentionally in that regard," she said. "But the bulk of people are just here to work, and trying to find some kind of document that will permit them to work -- not to steal identity and steal funds from others, but just to work."

Fennelly said the U.S. economy depends on millions of unskilled, workers but allows so few visas for new immigrants to work legally. She said the workers who become criminals in order to better their lives are bearing the burden of a failing immigration policy.

Failing or not, the law stands, said Tim Counts, spokesman for ICE in Bloomington. He said unauthorized use of someone's personal information can wreak havoc on future finances or credit reports.

"In working with the Federal Trade Commission, they have identified possibly hundreds of victims who are U.S. citizens or legal immigrants, who may have had their identities stolen and used by individuals to get jobs at Swift," Counts said. "So that absolutely was the priority. But we also have an obligation to enforce the nation's immigration laws, and that includes arresting people who are in the country illegally."

Counts said his agency has stepped up what he called "work site enforcement" since the Immigration and Naturalization Service was disbanded more than three years ago.

"They arrested maybe between 500 and 600 people nationwide in worksite enforcement operations in 2002, the last year they existed," Counts said. "This fiscal year, in 2006, ICE has arrested over 4,000 people. So we definitely prioritize worksite enforcement and we always go after criminal activity first."

Counts said this time the focus is on a those who use the false documents. But he says ICE also routinely patrols the Minneapolis K Mart parking lot and other places, to shut down those who make and sell bogus IDs as well.

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