The Magic Number

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

The investigation was started when officials began looking into the sale of fraudulent identity documents -- including alien registration cards, Mexican Matricula Consular ID cards and Social Security cards -- at several sites in west Denver. Another fake-document group, the Los Acapulcos organization, had been operating in direct competition with Castorena-Ibarra, sparking several violent assaults between rival members. These incidents led authorities to documentation-manufacturing laboratories in Aurora and Glendale, where ICE agents seized 21 silkscreen printing templates that has been used to mass-produce counterfeit laminates complete with security seals and holograms.

Although it's impossible to know how many people have used fake documents to gain employment, an obscure repository called the Earnings Suspense File, a kind of tax halfway house operated by the SSA, gives some idea of the scope. Whenever the agency receives a W-2 with a name that does not match the Social Security number, it places the taxes withheld from the wages in the ESF and attempts to resolve the mismatch by sending a letter to the employer. Those records that cannot be corrected remain in the file. As of 2004, the file held some 250 million mismatches; the U.S. Government Accountability Office concluded that the majority of these came from the restaurant, agriculture and construction industries. In 2005, the file contained $519 billion in unaccredited taxes; it continues to grow by $6 billion a year.

The SSA has launched efforts to shrink the number of mismatches by backing programs that require would-be workers to have Social Security numbers that correlate to the names the workers give. But the screening procedure is easily bypassed if an undocumented worker replicates matching information belonging to someone else. The W-2 is then tied to the real citizen, which means the employer doesn't get a letter, the ESF has one less mismatch, and the illegal worker keeps working until the real owner of that information finds out his identity has been stolen.

When she tried to get help for her son, Maria Tinajero discovered someone was using her name.
Tony Gallagher
When she tried to get help for her son, Maria Tinajero discovered someone was using her name.

Driving away from the IRS office, Maria spots a Wendy's store with the pigtailed redhead grinning on the sign. She wonders if a woman inside is wearing a name tag that says "Maria Tinajero." Getting a letter from the restaurant's headquarters might eventually result in her getting Medicaid for her boys, but she knows that there's nothing she can do to ensure that her Social Security number isn't used again by someone else looking for work. She has friends, family members and so many acquaintances who are in the same position as this mystery woman.

For some reason, Maria starts thinking about the Swift raids in Greeley. On a Spanish TV station, she saw footage of the workers being carted away to who knows where. "I thought, 'That's bad -- they only want to work,'" she says. She also thought about all the children whose parents were arrested. "Mexican kids, they stay at home with no father and no mom," she sighs. "Because the mom and the dad, they were working together in the same building. And they never came home."

A local Mexican dance hall threw a fundraiser for Our Lady of Peace parish, the Greeley church that has become a sanctuary for many of the displaced families. Maria wanted to go to the benefit, but she didn't have the money.

The light turns green, and Maria steps on the gas. It's almost time to pick up Jess from school. The Wendy's sign disappears in the rearview mirror. "I need to get that woman's address," she says.

I am aware that federal law provides for imprisonment and/or fines for false statements or use of false documents in connection with the completion of this form.

On July 5, 2006, President George W. Bush made an official visit to Dunkin' Donuts.

He bought a cup of coffee, shook in a packet of artificial sweetener, and told the two managers how they reminded him of the American Dream. One was from Guatemala and the other from El Salvador, the brothers who owned the Virginia shop were Iranian, and they were all extremely pleased to show off the frying vats and cinnamon bins to the president, who may have been the first Anglo to step behind the counter in many, many years.

But the photo-op wasn't all about doughnuts. Dunkin' Brand Inc. had recently announced that the corporation would be requiring all of its franchisees to participate in the Basic Pilot program, an online system designed to let employers verify the work eligibility of new hires. The voluntary federal program was being used only by about 8,600 companies at the time, a small percentage of the 5.6 million employers nationwide. But making Basic Pilot compulsory for all businesses is a crucial component in Bush's immigration reform proposal, and he's earmarked $135 million in the 2007 budget request for the implementation of the program on a national scale.

Some states didn't wait for the feds to take action. Last year, Colorado lawmakers passed a bill that effectively mandated the use of Basic Pilot among businesses statewide -- even though Basic Pilot has some basic flaws. The raids at Swift exposed this: The company is one of the biggest users of Basic Pilot, and it missed hundreds of instances where workers were using stolen Social Security numbers. That's because the numbers were real and matched real names. They just didn't belong to the workers.

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