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The Magic Number

Illegal immigrants are using stolen identities to work. But whose are they?

FORM I-9 EMPLOYMENT ELIGIBILITY VERIFICATION PLEASE READ ALL INSTRUCTIONS CAREFULLY BEFORE COMPLETING THIS FORM.

Maria Tinajero never thought much about her number before it was stolen -- at least not in the tangible way you think about a necklace or a photograph or any other prized possession. It was just a number. Nine numbers, actually, separated by two dashes, with the final digit distinguishing it from eight otherwise identical numbers, making it uniquely hers. Like most people, she'd committed her Social Security number to memory, along with other units that differentiate her, identify her: birth date, address, phone number. Now she recites them all to the clerk behind the desk, and he absently pokes the numerals into his keypad. He looks at the form she has filled out, then back at the screen. Finally, he lifts his head to evaluate Maria.

Her round face remains expressionless, except for the penciled brown lines that highlight her mouth and eyes. Although she's lived in Denver most of her life and is a United States citizen, 27-year-old Maria avoids speaking English whenever she can. She's especially self-conscious about her accent in quasi-formal situations, like earlier this month when the school social worker told her that her elder son, Jesús, a first-grader, was so disruptive in the classroom that he should be medicated for hyperactivity. Maria took Jesús and her other child, five-year-old Brian, who was running a fever, to the pediatrics department of a hospital near downtown. When asked if she had health insurance or Medicaid, Maria said that she had neither, and the check-in nurse told her to come back when she did. Between work and child-care schedules, it took a week for Maria to finally arrive at the Arapahoe County Department of Human Services office near her apartment.

It is a Monday morning in late November, and outside the air is turning toward winter. Maria knows that long waits at governmental offices should be expected, but her wait is about to get much longer.

The clerk says there's a problem. He points to her written employment history and asks why she didn't include her job at Wendy's. Maria is confused. She has worked several jobs in recent years doing housekeeping at various hotels -- and the part-time shifts she currently pulls at a banquet hall -- but she's never flipped burgers. He shows her a printout with the employer listed as "Wendy's of Denver, Inc." Printed below a 2005 start date is Maria's full name and Social Security number. Someone is using her information! Maria's mind races. Who could it be? Her purse was stolen around that time, she tells him -- that could explain it.

Maybe so, but the added income disqualifies her for Medicaid. She needs to file a police report for identity theft and work it out with the Wendy's human resources department. Until then, not only will Maria be denied medical benefits, but her food stamps will be canceled as well.

The clerk says he's sorry, but there's nothing he can do.

This is a phrase Maria will hear many times in the next few months.

Section 1. Employment Information and Verification To be completed and signed by employee at the time employment begins.

The apartment complex where Maria lives with her two boys is located on a mismatched square of territory at the eastern edge of the city, the only part of Denver that overlaps with Arapahoe County, as if in municipal limbo. Which is fitting, since the area serves as a landing strip for many immigrants -- both those with legal papers and those without -- who are drawn by the cheap rents and proximity to jobs downtown and at the Denver Tech Center.

At the strip mall across the street is a small storefront operated by the Denver Police Department, where Maria fills out a report for Criminal Impersonation. In the section at the bottom of the page, she relays the explanation that Human Services had given her that morning and concludes, "I have two young sons and only a part-time job. Please help me." The officer who helps her complete the report tells Maria not to call Wendy's, but to let the Denver District Attorney's Office handle it.

The officer doesn't know it, but a crackdown on identity theft is in the works sixty miles to the north.

On December 12, the second-largest pork and beef processor in the world becomes the focus of the largest work-site raid ever conducted by the federal government. Vans full of agents in full riot gear descend on Swift & Company facilities in six states and arrest 1,282 employees -- including several hundred workers in Greeley, where the corporation is headquartered.

The raids are the result of a ten-month-long investigation by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) into criminal organizations that had been supplying undocumented workers at Swift with counterfeit identification. The underground industry of forged birth certificates, green cards and state licenses has long been a target of law-enforcement agencies. But this is the first time that federal officials have highlighted the trend of undocumented employees using the names and Social Security numbers of unwitting U.S. citizens.

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