False documents: A lucrative business

Undercover investigation
Immigration agents conducting an undercover fraud document purchase in 2005, as part of an investigation in Denver. The two standing men are confidential informants buying the documents; the man bending over is the document vendor.
Photo courtesy of Immigration and Customs Enforcement

The false document industry may operate under most people's radar, but it's pretty easy to find if you look in the right places.

As part of our research for this story, reporter Ambar Espinoza recently went to a Mexican restaurant in St. Paul, and asked a waitress if she knew where she could get false documents in the neighborhood. The waitress immediately said the cook in the back could sell the necessary documents.

Fake IDs
Immigration agents collect thousands of false ID documents in their investigations. This pile of documents includes some fake ones, as well as genuine documents, such as Minnesota drivers licenses, that were fraudulently obtained by using fraudulent "feeder" documents.
Photo courtesy of Immigration and Customs Enforcement

Many immigrants are familiar with how easy it can be to track down document vendors. A man we'll call Ramon says he's done it several times.

Ramon insisted we not use his real name, because he entered the United States illegally about five years ago and fears deportation. He left his home in El Salvador because he felt his life was in danger from increasingly violent gang activity.

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Ramon sees his story repeated all the time -- in spite of recent crackdowns.

"People come here, they get false documents to work, so everything's the same. The Worthington raids haven't slowed things down or changed things at all. People are still buying," he says.

And that's because the demand seems almost bottomless, with new immigrants coming into the country all the time.

A popular sales location
Mark Cangemi, left, and Tim Counts of Immigration and Customs Enforcement say the false document ring that sells papers in this Minneapolis Kmart parking lot probably are based in the neighborhood.
MPR Photo/Annie Baxter

The U.S. State Department has set aside 66,000 temporary visas for unskilled, non-agricultural workers, and 5,000 permanent visas. Those figures are dwarfed by the number of immigrants who want a visa to work. According to the Pew Hispanic Center, more than seven million immigrants who are in the U.S. illegally hold jobs.

So, you could say the market is wide open for people who want to make money selling work papers.

And they'll do so out in public.

The parking lot of a Kmart in Minneapolis, which serves a sizable Latino population, has become a well-established sales location. Mark Cangemi from Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, met us there.

As we stand with him near a row of phones looking out at the parking lot, customers push shopping carts to their cars. Cangemi points to some men near the street who may be keeping an eye out for a different kind of customer.

The parking lot of a Kmart in Minneapolis has become a well-established sales location for false IDs. These men loitering outside the store are possibly first-level runners, who make intial contact with the potential customer. The runners are paid a minimum of $25 to bring in a client.
MPR Photo/Annie Baxter

The men are wearing jeans and hooded sweatshirts or winter jackets. They look like any other store patrons, except for the fact they're just loitering by the parking lot entrance. Cangemi says those men could be "runners" for fake document rings.

"Those runners will get paid a minimum of $25 to bring in a potential client," says Cangemi. "They bring them over to these particular phones, where calls are made, prices are determined, {and} down payments are made," Cangemi explains.

The process is familiar to Ramon, who bought documents this way after he arrived from El Salvador.

"They take you to have your picture taken, and you give them half of the money of what the documents cost," Ramon explains. "About one to two hours later, you meet at a second spot, different from where you originally met, and then they give you your card. It's a fast process, about one and a half hours. That's one way it works, because I've seen it with my own eyes."

The runners often use these phones outside the Kmart to place the order, determine the price, and put the customer in contact with a second-level runner.
MPR Photo/Annie Baxter

Mark Cangemi from ICE says the people who put together document packages sold at the Kmart parking lot probably live right in the neighborhood. And their businesses offer a range of documents.

Cangemi says for about $25, you can buy a low quality, fake Social Security card. Green cards, or work visas, run around $150-$200. They're more valuable than a Social Security card because the green card indicates someone can legally live and work in the U.S.

Original documents, like a stolen birth certificate or passport, cost upwards of $1,500 and take about a week for delivery.

The rings that sell documents are often compared to the mafia due to their violent reputation, their secrecy, and their big profits. Cangemi says their profitability has really taken off since 9/11.

"They take you to have your picture taken, and you give them half of the money. ... About one to two hours later, you meet at a second spot, and then they give you your card."

"As more emphasis has been placed on immigration enforcement, and specifically border enforcement, what has that done? It has driven up the difficulty of passing through the border, and it also has driven up the prices to the point where it may even be more lucrative, in some respects, than narcotics," Cangemi says.

But just how lucrative is it? Government agencies won't provide estimates of the total dollar value of the document industry. They say they don't have that information. United States Attorney Pat Reinert has investigated paper networks in Iowa.

"I would not be able to put a number on it. It's difficult trying to figure out how many angels dance on the head of a pin," Reinert says. "I don't think I could hazard a guess as to how deep the criminal networks run in any particular state, or how widespread it is in any particular area."

Government officials sometimes point to individual criminal networks to illustrate the scale of the industry.

One case occurred in the late 1990s, when ICE cracked down on a Mexican family that operated a false document business in cities all across the U.S. The Castorena family had more than 100 employees. Officials say the family is linked to millions of counterfeit IDs. At a raid on just one of the family's operations in Los Angeles, ICE seized false documents with an estimated street value of $20 million.

"The workers...are not the masterminds"
John Keller, the executive director of the Immigrant Law Center in St. Paul, says immigrant workers should not be confused with the criminal networks running document rings.
MPR Photo/Annie Baxter

Regardless of the scale of the document rings, immigrant advocates want one thing to be clear: The customers buying fake documents should not be seen as part of the criminal enterprises doing the counterfeiting. That's the view of John Keller of the Immigrant Law Center in St. Paul.

"The workers themselves are not creating documents, they're not the masterminds behind the document ring," says Keller. "These folks simply buy documents wherever they can find them so they can work and send money home."

But some government officials say the fake work papers sold to immigrants may be just a sideline for enterprises primarily involved in identity theft, credit card or other types of fraud.

Officials also say the false paper networks facilitate the entry of terrorists into the country, and allow others to hide criminal records with new identities.

Tim Counts of ICE says the people who buy fake papers are supporting criminal enterprises, even if their motives are innocent.

Blank Social Security cards
These blank Social Security cards could be used to generate false identities.
Photo courtesy of Immigration and Customs Enforcement

"It's true -- many people buying these documents and identities are merely seeking to work. But if it weren't for them, the larger criminal organizations wouldn't be in business," says Counts. "And in any investigation, we try to get to the root of the problem."

While law enforcement officials hope immigrants using fake papers will lead them to the document networks, the immigrants themselves may just be hoping the documents they buy will pass muster.

According to Ramon, who bought work papers himself, there's a lot of uncertainty on the buyer's end -- the buyer could get duped.

"There are recently arrived immigrants who buy documents that don't work. You could easily tell the documents are fake," Ramon says.

And of course, even if the papers look good, the immigrants could get caught and deported. But if they do, there will likely be other immigrants rushing in to replace them, maybe this time with more sophisticated fake documents.