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The Magic Number

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, Jess, a first-grader, was so disruptive in the classroom that he should be medicated for hyperactivity. Maria took Jess 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.

"Violations of our immigration laws and privacy rights often go hand in hand," pronounces Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff. "Enforcement actions like this one protect the privacy rights of innocent Americans while striking a blow against illegal immigration."

But who, exactly, are these innocent Americans?

Some of the true owners of the stolen Social Security numbers are quickly tracked down. Gustavo Gutierrez and Aaron Rey Juarez of California are both citizens whose names and numbers were used by Swift workers. Same with Edna Flores and Vanessa Caraveo of Texas. A man going by the name Otilio Torres Rivera was working at the Swift plant in Greeley; the real Otilio Torres Rivera had lived in North Carolina, and died more than a year before. No one points out the obvious: All of the victims have Latino surnames.

Weld County issues 33 warrants to Swift plant employees charging identity theft. In every case, says Weld County District Attorney Ken Buck, the victim is a U.S. citizen with a Latino last name.

Mariana Andoney-Cortez is using the Social Security number of Debra Diaz.

Santiago Valdez-Botello is posing as Luis J. Pena.

The 33 warrants are issued because the victims or a victim's family have filed complaints with the Federal Trade Commission and can testify in a criminal case, Buck says. In all, 261 workers are arrested in the Greeley raids, and every single one is working under the same type of false information. "To my memory," he adds, "every victim's name has been a Hispanic name."

There are roughly 12 million foreigners living in the country illegally -- an estimated 225,000 of them in Colorado. Of these, about 80 percent are assumed to be of Mexican and Latin American origin. Whose identities are they using? Not those of white America.

"The victims of these crimes are not typically Anglos," Buck says. "They are typically Hispanics. When you're five-foot-two and you come from Guatemala, you don't use 'Thor Larson' as an alias."

I attest, under penalty of perjury, that I am (check one of the following):

__ A citizen or national of the United States

__ A Lawful Permanent Resident (Alien #) A ________________________________________

__ An alien authorized to work until ___________________

Every morning, Diane Sandoval arrives at Denver Police Department headquarters, sits at her desk and opens the daily logbook. Names from the previous day's business are listed on each gridded sheet, usually stopping midway down the page.

She starts taking calls.

They come from Denver and all over the country, sometimes up to fifty a day. Stolen checks, credit-card fraud, forgery, mortgage scams, embezzlement and Nigerian money-transfer cons. In 2006, Sandoval took down 4,059 reports, representing crimes that go far beyond identity theft.

"It's so busy, I sometimes only get half-hour lunches," she sighs, her pen poised in her hand like a sixth finger. "But I don't mind. I have to be here." Every call that comes in, she notes in the log so that it can be assigned to one of the six detectives in the DPD's Financial Crimes Unit.

It's the last week of January, and Sandoval is already on column 267. Every day this year, she's gotten reports from individuals who've discovered that someone is using their name and Social Security number to work. Though the Financial Crimes Unit doesn't keep demographic statistics on victims, Detective Kathy Castro estimates that in at least eight out of ten cases involving employment-related identity theft, the victims have Latino names. "That's the portion of the population that's trying to work without gaining proper paperwork," she says. "It's easy for [undocumented workers] to purchase the information on a street corner someplace here. And if they can get it to match what their heritage is, then it doesn't raise any eyebrows."

Employment-based identity theft differs from many of the other financial crimes the DPD investigates. While professional identity-theft criminals and meth-fueled "ID theft gangs" tend to use check and credit-card fraud schemes to score cash quickly, undocumented workers are not looking to draw attention to themselves.

"If I steal your identity and I'm living and working as you, I'm probably not going to be running up your credit," says Jay Foley of the California-based Identity Theft Resource Center. "In fact, what little credit I get under your name, I'm going to make sure that all the bills are paid and up to date so that there are no red flags popping up to tell you I'm out there."

Most of these victims would never know about their Social Security numbers' double lives if the IRS didn't start hounding them to pay back taxes on jobs they never worked.

Moises Ramos Camacho of Denver got a letter from the IRS stating that he owed taxes on his earnings with a janitorial-services company in Illinois -- a job he says he never worked.

Melissa Arellano, a doctor who lives in Texas, reported to the DPD that she was on file with the IRS for working at a Denver-based fruit distributor. Often the burden of proof rests on the victim. "I am gathering information to send back to the IRS proving my innocence," she said.

And when impostors do use stolen information for non-work transactions, the victims hear from creditors who make the IRS look tame. Denverite Juan Estrada has been getting harassed by a collection agency for $400 on a cell phone he never bought. Meanwhile, a law firm is hounding him for payment on an apartment he never lived in.

Ann Martinez, a tribal police officer on the impoverished Pine Ridge Indian reservation in South Dakota, first discovered that her name and Social Security number were being used in 1994, when the IRS claimed that she was working three different jobs in Nebraska and Colorado. After she filed a statement disputing the employment, the IRS cleared her record. But in 1998, an imposter used Martinez's information again, this time running up several department-store credit cards. And last year, she learned that someone in Denver has been using her number to work at a local window installer and to obtain loans and purchase cars.

"I can't even apply for a credit card now because I have so much false debt," Martinez says. "I can't buy a house. [Lenders] just take one look at all the junk on my credit report and they're like, 'Can't do it.'"

But while an imposter may leave a long paper trail, following it to the source isn't that simple. Investigators have only the name of the victim, and in many cases no idea what the imposter looks like, Castro points out. She drafts warrants under the generic names John Doe or Jane Doe so that they don't cause more problems for the victims. Then police work with employers to identify the person who has been working for them illegally -- and sometimes employers are not very cooperative.

One Latino-surnamed victim in Arizona discovered through the IRS that someone was using his information to work at a metro Denver restaurant, part of a chain with many outlets. "And some are located in Denver and some are not -- but the corporate headquarters are located in Denver," Castro explains. "Now, I got the case. I called up this restaurant and said, 'Do you have this person with this SSN working at one of your restaurants, and if so, which one?' And the first thing they say is, 'I want a subpoena.'

"Well, for the police department, we don't do subpoenas, we do full search warrants," she continues. "In order for me to get a search warrant, I have to have probable cause to believe that, number one, the person is working for them, which they wouldn't tell me, and number two, that it's in the City and County of Denver, which they wouldn't tell me. And I'm sitting there going, 'How am I supposed to work my case?'"

In the meantime, word gets out to managers that the police are interested in a certain employee, and that employee -- either through outright dismissal or more subtle means -- never returns to the job. And John and Jane Doe go looking for new names and numbers, and new work.

But even after an imposter quits using a name and number, a victim can spend months or even years attempting to clear up the false information. In some cases, victims have discovered their identity being used by up to fifty individuals for employment and other scams. Often the only solution for people like Ann Martinez is to have an entirely new Social Security number issued. "And I don't think I should have to," she says. "But in order for this stuff to stop, I may."

It's the uncertainty of never knowing who could be using her identity that frustrates her the most.

"But I can't get angry over it, because there's nobody to get angry at. I don't know this person," she concedes. "If there was a way that I could meet this person, I'm telling you right now, I probably would be beating the shit out of them."

Over the phone, her voice starts to quaver. "That's how angry I am," she says. "I have to go through this every other year. I don't have anybody to go to vent out this anger. It's just getting worse."

Section 2. Employer Review and Verification.

To be completed and signed by employer. Examine one document from List A OR examine one document from List B and one from List C on the reverse of this form, and record the title, number and expiration date, if any, of the document(s).

The elevator doors open, and Maria steps out into the gray hallway. She spots a small sign for the IRS Taxpayer Assistance Center and walks toward it.

Despite a general dislike of driving, particularly in downtown with its confusing one-way streets and looming glass towers, Maria managed to make it to the IRS offices and even found a parking spot for her white Pontiac Grand Am at a meter in front of the building. More than six weeks have passed since she filed the police report. The lack of food stamps means that she has to spend money usually allotted toward other bills on groceries. And Jess is as hyper as ever. Maria wants to get him on medication. So she decides to find the imposter herself.

"If I just talk to her," she explains, "I say, 'Why are you using my number?'"

Maria already knows why, though. The imposter needs to work. It's a simple equation: a name and number equals work equals a livelihood. But does this imposter know that there is a real person behind the number? "Maybe she doesn't think about it," Maria reasons.

A row of cubicles divides the room in half. Behind the front desk, a woman looks at Maria over the top of her reading glasses. "Do you need an IT number?" the woman asks.

"Does anyone, uh, you have here anyone who speaks Spanish?" Maria says, glancing at a Hispanic man sitting nearby in a security uniform.

The woman sighs. "Do you need an IT number?"

She is referring to an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number, which the IRS assigns to workers who are not eligible for a Social Security number for tax-processing purposes. Created in 1996, the ITIN was intended for use by resident and non-resident aliens working in the U.S. But because the numbers are issued regardless of legal status, many undocumented workers use them to file tax returns -- a contradiction that has always confused Maria.

"No, I need to see my" -- Maria thinks for the name -- "W-9 forms."

She means her W-2 forms, which employers complete for each worker to report wages and tax withholdings. A friend told Maria that the W-2 filed by Wendy's should have the store location, and maybe even a home address for the imposter. The IRS woman presses a button on a box attached to the desk. Out pops a slip of paper with a number. Maria takes it and looks for a place to sit among a dozen or so other assistance seekers. She finds a chair next to two elderly women gabbing in Russian. The electronic board mounted to the ceiling says they are now serving number 203. She looks at her slip: 507.

"Five-oh-seven?"

She wonders if she can get out of here before her son's school lets out at 2:30. She'd consider asking Luis, her boyfriend, to get Jess, but he's has been holed up in her apartment since he injured his back hanging drywall. Fortunately, he was able to get workers' compensation, so he can help Maria out with the rent. But he's scheduled for surgery next month and is going to move out as soon as he recovers. They fight too much. Maria doesn't know why. Fight, fight, fight. It's always the little things. He will yell at Brian and Jess to calm down -- ay, callate! -- and she will yell at Luis for yelling at her sons. It was the same way with Alonso, the boys' father, before they divorced three years ago. He lives back in Chihuahua and hasn't been north in years; paying a coyote to guide you across the border costs thousands of dollars that he doesn't have. Maria has heard that this year, passage is particularly difficult.

But Luis is here, she reminds herself, and he's pretty good with the boys; he's babysitting Brian right now. Still, her mind is firm: She wants a husband who helps her with the laundry or cleaning the house, maybe cooks once in a while, not just sits there. She can barely do it all, even with working only twenty hours a week. And she'd like to work more. Last year, she earned a nursing-aide certification from a local occupational school, but the great job promised by the school's counselors never materialized, because hospitals want aides with experience. So she's caught in the low-skilled worker's conundrum: She has no experience because she can't get experience because she has no experience.

An automated voice yaps from the speakers: "NOW SERVING NUMBER. FIVE. ZERO. TWO."

Maria realizes that the board, for some mysterious reason, rotates between high and low numbers. In the cubicle directly in front of her, a man dressed like a construction worker consults with an IRS clerk. From bits of the conversation, Maria learns that the Hispanic man is upset because someone else has been working under his name and Social Security number. But instead of disputing the bills for back taxes -- as have Maria's relatives who've gotten letters from the IRS about jobs they never worked -- this man apparently ignored them. Now the debt is fat with fines and very delinquent. The clerk is trying to be helpful, calmly explaining exactly why the IRS has put a levy on his bank accounts and weekly wages.

"But this is my money," the man says, his voice coming out in a strained shout. "I did not work there."

"Yes, sir, and we're going to get it sorted out," the clerk says over the sound of clacking computer keys.

Maria thinks she'd better get this thing fixed.

Number 507 is finally called. Maria goes to the assigned cubicle and finds the woman who'd been sitting behind the front desk.

"May I see an ID and have your Social Security number?"

Maria obliges, removing her wallet from her purse. She explains her situation. The IRS woman pulls up Maria's file for 2005 and begins listing off company names. When she gets to Wendy's, Maria says, "That's the one. Do you have the address or something?"

"Yes, I do," the woman replies. "But I can't give it to you."

"You're not allowed to give me the address?"

The woman doesn't answer. Instead, she exits the cubicle, then returns with a printout. She fishes a pair of scissors from her desk, cuts a three-inch long rectangle from the sheet, and hands the paper to Maria. It is the W-2 form filed by Wendy's, and it contains more information than the one that Maria got at the Human Services office. But the IRS woman has removed the addresses of the store and the employee -- Maria's entire reason for coming.

"Then how am I supposed to find the person who is using my Social Security?" Maria asks.

"NOW SERVING NUMBER. TWO. ONE. THREE."

"What you're concerned with," the IRS woman says, "is going to Wendy's and telling them that 'I am not the one who earned these wages. Someone else is using my name.'" She pauses, thinking. "But she's also using your Social Security number, so it's real hard to prove."

"So what's my next step to do to find out?"

"As I said," the IRS woman says, frowning, "you have to go through the employer, and they will hopefully write a letter on their letterhead for you stating that you are not the person who earned these wages. And we can abate that from your tax return and not hold you liable for those wages."

"So how will I go to the Wendy's if I don't have the address?"

"You are not hearing what I am saying. You have the Wendy's address," the IRS woman says, pointing to the W-2 form. "Let me have that back."

Maria hands over the form and the woman uses a fluorescent yellow pen to highlight the Wendy's corporate address in Dublin, Ohio.

"You can call them. You can write them," she says. "I cannot give you the address of the person who is using your number." This is IRS policy. Disclosure laws prohibit the agency from providing W-2 information, especially once it's been identified as a fraudulent form.

"But you have it," Maria says.

"Yes."

"NOW SERVING NUMBER. FIVE. ONE. FIVE."

"So you cannot check if they are still working there?"

"I don't know," she answers, snipping off the end of her sentence as if neatly discarding the conversation.

Maria zips up her purse. "Thank you."

"If you'd like to complete a survey card, please take it." The IRS woman points to a stack. "Otherwise, have a great day!"

Maria picks up a card and heads toward the elevator. As the doors close, she lifts the W-2 form and looks at the rectangular gap.

ANTI-DISCRIMINATION NOTICE

It is illegal to discriminate against work eligible individuals. Employers CANNOT specify which document(s) they will accept from an employee. The refusal to hire an individual because of a future expiration date may also constitute illegal discrimination.

Maria may not understand the intricacies of tax law, but she does know about the underground economy of identity theft.

She was born in Mexico in 1979. Throughout the '80s, her father would make periodic trips into the U.S. for work, sometimes on temporary visas, sometimes not. In 1987, he was able to apply for citizenship under a twelve-month blanket amnesty granted by Congress the year before to some 2.7 million illegal aliens. Three years later, the 160,000 children and spouses of these immigrants were granted citizenship as well. So in 1991, when Maria was twelve years old, the whole family moved north to Denver. She attended Hamilton Middle School on the south side of the city for two years before dropping out.

"I needed to start to work," Maria shrugs. "I have a big family, and we needed the money."

A large hotel had openings for housekeepers. Since Maria was only fourteen, she obtained a fake Colorado ID. All of the information was accurate, except for the birth date that put her at eighteen -- old enough to hire. The counterfeiter she purchased it from catered to the immigrant community, where finding passable fake documents is as easy as buying kitchen appliances.

According to one DPD detective in the Vice and Narcotics Bureau, fake-document sellers usually search for commissions at large Latino gathering spots, such as the so-called Mexican Indoor Flea Market on Federal Boulevard. Sellers approach likely-looking shoppers and ask if they're interested in acquiring some type of identification in order to gain employment. If so, they pass on a business card with a phone number.

"You call the phone number. You have a conversation with an individual, and it's a little bit like cat and mouse," says the detective. "He wants to know who you are and where you're from. Verbally, he's looking for some type of authentication that you need it."

Once a prospective buyer has passed the verbal test, the seller arranges a meet and arrives with a digital camera. "They take a photograph of the individual so that it looks official," the detective explains. "And then he or she leaves and says they'll return, and in a matter of an hour or an hour and a half, the individual returns with the documentation and an exchange is made." Prices vary depending on whether the buyer already has a name and Social Security number he wants to use, or needs the seller to supply that.

Over the past decade, Denver has served as the home base for several international counterfeit-document rings. The largest of these, the Castorena-Ibarra crime family, was the subject of a seven-year investigation by the U.S. Attorney's Office. In 2005, that probe resulted in the prosecution of over fifty individuals in Denver alone. Pedro Castorena-Ibarra, the organization's head, was arrested last June in Mexico and is awaiting extradition to the U.S.

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.

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.

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.

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.

When she called the number for Wendy's corporate headquarters, she was directed through a maddening automated maze of number-pressing until she got to a place to leave a voice-mail message. She did, and never got a call back. Now she begins dialing individual Wendy's locations off the list, beginning with the one closest to her house. She asks to speak to Maria. Is Maria working? Hello, I need to talk to Maria. The managers who answer the phone always seem to reply, "Which Maria?"

"Maria Tinajero."

"No, no one by that name."

There are ten Wendy's stores in Denver, and a total of 34 in the metro area.

On her tenth call, Maria gets a lead.

"This is Mary," says the voice.

"Maria Tinajero?"

"Yes," says the voice. Even above the lunch-rush background noise, it's clear that her English is good.

"Is this Maria or Mary?" Maria asks.

The voice sounds distracted.

"Did you apply for a job?" Maria continues.

The voice hangs up.

Maria grabs Brian and runs to her car. The phone number is for the Wendy's store at 515 South Broadway, about a fifteen-minute drive away. Maria wants to confront her imposter, tell her to give up her number. But as she drives, she grows nervous. Will the woman deny it? Will she run? Is she running right now?

The Wendy's store looks like any other Wendy's store. Maria takes Brian's hand and enters. Behind the counter, a woman turns around. She is Latina and about Maria's age. Her name tag reads "Mary Tinajero, manager."

Maria's jaw drops. She knows this woman; she's her cousin.

They speak to each other in a flurry of Spanish. It's a fluke, a bizarre coincidence. Her cousin couldn't be the imposter. She's worked for Wendy's for over ten years and, more important, she's a U.S. citizen. Maria knows this because both their families moved from Mexico the same year.

They take a seat at a table in the lobby and talk while Brian eats a vanilla Frosty.

"Is she using your middle name, too?" Mary asks.

"Yes," Maria answers. "Estrella, too." She relays the whole story -- Jess, the medicine, the hospital, the IRS.

Mary rolls her eyes sympathetically. "Well, corporate should be able to know that stuff." She opens a three-ring binder and finds the phone number for the local Wendy's human resources director.

"See, what's happening right now is that no restaurant will hire illegal people," Mary explains. "So the people who make the papers know they can't just make up fake numbers anymore. They have to use real numbers, like yours." This is why Mary now shreds all of her own personal papers and never carries her Social Security card.

Mary tells the human resources director about her cousin's problem. They decide that Maria should photocopy her driver's license and let the company deal with the phony employee.

A few days later, Mary reports that they located the fake Maria Tinajero working at a Wendy's in Littleton. The manager told the worker there had been a complaint, and asked her to bring in documents proving her identity.

"But she went home and never showed back up for work," Mary says.

When you live under a borrowed identity, it's easy to disappear.

In 2005, Detective Castro arrested a woman working at a north Denver furniture factory under the name Yvonne Lucero ("Stop, Thief!," March 10, 2005). The real Lucero had grown up in Denver but was living in Albuquerque when she got a letter from the IRS demanding $2,000 in back taxes. It took Castro more than a month to obtain a probable-cause warrant for Jane Doe on two counts of forgery and one count of criminal impersonation. But even after the detective took "Lucero" into custody, Castro was still uncertain of the impersonator's true identity.

The police had discovered a Mexican voter-registration card issued to Guillermina Zavala, but when Castro checked out the resident alien number listed in the company's documents under the Zavala name, the digits didn't match ICE records. In fact, the numbers associated with the resident alien card were actually registered to a male. Castro still didn't know who the woman was when she made bail. She never returned for her second advisement hearing at a Denver courtroom, where a clerk read "Guillermina Zavala, Guillermina Zavala" into the open air.

The woman turned up in Arizona last year, working under another fraudulent name, Castro says. Not knowing she was wanted in Colorado on 26 counts of forgery and identity theft, Arizona police released her on bond.

"So I have to go back to the district attorney, get an at-large warrant, and meanwhile she's gone. Again. It's a never-ending battle," Castro laments. "Now we've got another victim out there."

If employee's previous grant of work has expired, provide the information below for the document that establishes current employment eligibility.

Sitting at her kitchen table in early February, Maria looks through the help-wanted ads. She no longer expects to meet her imposter, though she would like to. She's afraid that any future encounter will be through IRS paperwork. "Maybe she's applying for another job with the fake documents of my information," she says. "And then it's going to happen again."

Because anything can happen when a system creates a subclass of people who must assume the lives of others in order to survive.

A packet of information that the DPD sends to all identify-theft victims went astray, because Maria's address was filled out incorrectly on the police report; her case is still open. She has heard nothing more from Wendy's. (The regional HR manager declined to speak with Westword and referred all inquiries to the company lawyer, who did not respond to numerous phone messages. Finally on February 13, company spokesman Bob Bertini said he would check with the Wendy's legal department to see if a letter clearing up Maria's work history -- or lack thereof -- can be arranged. According to Bertini, Wendy's checks all employee names and Social Security numbers through the SSA's website, which, like Basic Pilot, only flags mismatches.)

Maria is tired of waiting. She needs money for her children; she needs more work. Although she's had many interviews in the past two weeks, none has resulted in a job. But she keeps looking for full-time employment -- all the while wondering if her name and number are already working without her.


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