The Magic Number

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

The origin of Basic Pilot can be traced back to 1986, when President Ronald Reagan signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act, which made it unlawful for employers to knowingly hire undocumented aliens and required workers to show a Social Security card and other documents to gain employment. (The act also allowed the one-year amnesty through which Maria's father became a citizen.) As a result, employers started using the I-9 Form, which requires that workers present one of three combinations of identity documentation. While the intent of the act was to stem illegal immigration by closing off jobs to non-citizens, the result was an explosion in cheap counterfeit identification. Employers were obligated to accept identification that appeared "reasonably genuine" -- which left a wide-open field for phony-document makers.

In response, Bill Clinton signed the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996. Along with increasing penalties for those companies that employ undocumented workers, the law instructed the Immigration and Naturalization Service (now Citizenship and Immigration Services) and the Social Security Administration to launch three programs to improve employment verification. After years of development, Basic Pilot proved the most efficient of the three.

With Basic Pilot, employers feed the name and Social Security number of a prospective employee into a database that compares the information to SSA records. If the name and Social Security number match, then the employer is notified that the applicant is eligible to work in the U.S. If they don't match, the worker doesn't get hired.

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.

Basic Pilot increased the pressure on illegals to obtain complete stolen identities, and the black market demand for Social Security numbers that match Latino surnames increased. Maria had seen that trend even before she fell victim to it. "Like right now, it's hard because most companies, they are not hiring if the Social Security number is not good," she says. "That's why they are using others' information, like a Social Security card and name that's good. They check. It has to be a good number."

"I've even heard that Social Security numbers with Latino surnames go for a premium of $500," says Nate Strauch, communications director for the Colorado Attorney General's Office.

"We have noticed that there are a lot of victims that we get with Latino surnames," says the Identity Theft Resource Center's Foley. "Information is a commodity. And all they're looking for is someone who wants to buy it. And because of that, we have a very significant problem."

In 2005, the Government Accountability Office released an extensive study on work-site enforcement efforts. While it found that Basic Pilot showed promise, the GAO also pointed out that the computerized registry might not help employers detect identity fraud. "If an employee presents counterfeit documentation that contains valid information and appears authentic, the Pilot program may verify the employee as work-authorized," it noted.

Senator Wayne Allard became aware of Basic Pilot's drawbacks after he and other senators whose states were the site of a Swift raid met with DHS Secretary Chertoff. "He told us, 'Well, we were unable to catch a lot of these offenders because the name and the Social Security number matched,'" remembers Allard. "And if they could've just caught this early on, they felt that they could've just cut down on a lot of this identity theft."

Allard introduced an amendment to the Minimum Wage Bill that would have given the DHS access to Social Security Administration records in order to find numbers that were being used by multiple people, allowing ICE to better target work sites with a high number of undocumented workers. But while this measure might have helped catch employers who tried to circumvent program requirements, it would not fix Basic Pilot's inability to guarantee that a worker is truly legal. Like other amendments, Allard's was ruled "non-germane" and not accepted when the bill passed last month. Still, he vows to introduce it at the next possible opportunity.

"It's not a victimless crime," Allard says of identity theft. "They affect people's credit rating, they create problems with other agencies when they apply for programs, they may affect the employment possibilities, they may affect the jobs of the people whose IDs have been stolen."

Despite the program's failings last year, Colorado recently enacted laws that require public contractors to use Basic Pilot and orders the state's 170,000 other employers to undergo periodic audits of their workforces. If undocumented workers are found on the payroll, says Department of Labor spokesman Bill Thoennes, companies are expected to "demonstrate due diligence" by using Basic Pilot or a similar system to screen employees.

Just like Swift & Company did.

Section 3. Updating and Reverification.

To be completed and signed by employer

New name (if applicable) _________

Date of rehire (if applicable) _______

It has been almost two months since she filed her police report, and Maria has heard nothing from the authorities. The school social worker has again asked about medication for Jess, and Maria doesn't even know where to begin solving her problem.

Sitting in her neat apartment, which is decorated with flower prints and ornately framed family photos, she rests her elbows on the kitchen table, which holds a bowl full of plastic fruit, the help-wanted section of the newspaper and a printout of all the Wendy's locations in Denver.

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