Card Sharps

A man who says his name is Alejandro promises he can make you "American" for $170. Alejandro works outside the coin laundromat in the Zuni Plaza, at West 30th Avenue and Zuni Street. He's about 5 feet 7 inches tall, with a stocky build, and today he's wearing a blue and orange Broncos baseball cap with a well-curved bill. The weekends, during the day, are a good time to catch him, he says. It's just after 2 p.m. on the first Saturday in November.

Alejandro makes his living selling fake green cards and Social Security cards to illegal aliens new to Denver. Also known as a Permanent Resident Card, a green card allows non-U.S. citizens to live and work inside the country. Alejandro is not sure how many clients he has served -- "Oh, God," he says, exhaling and rolling his eyes -- or how much money he takes in, but he insists that he's only a middleman working in a much larger process.

Alejandro usually charges $120 for the "chuecos," but today his customer is a reporter posing as a Canadian in desperate need of documents to remain in the United States. Sensing the foreigner's urgency, Alejandro raises his price.

"One-thirty for the [green] card. Forty for the, the..." -- Alejandro struggles for the term "Social Security card" and finally settles on "the other one." The vendor tells his client to provide the correct spelling of his name, a birth date and a signature, as well as a small mug shot taken at the peculiar three-quarters angle used on green cards.

The customer hands over the photo, which was taken earlier in the day at the so-called Mexican flea market at the corner of Eighth Avenue and Federal Boulevard. After thank-yous are exchanged, Alejandro politely apologizes for not approaching his customer sooner. "Your skin," he says, laughing, as he pets his own forearm. "People don't trust you." Alejandro tells the phony Canadian to expect a phone call at home the following day.

The white-skinned applicant is unusual. Mostly, immigrants from Mexico have been coming to visit men like Alejandro at Zuni Plaza and other less frequented outlets for more than ten years, according to agents for the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service. The coin-operated laundry is the best-known stop on the "Colorado Pipeline," a conduit that brings people from Mexico across the southwestern border and into the state. As many as 50,000 illegal aliens are estimated to be living in Colorado, according to the INS. Ninety percent of them who look for work will buy chuecos. In October, the INS raided the laundromat and arrested four card-sellers. The peddlers were believed to be collecting $10,000 a week in fees.

The bust was part of a crackdown called "Operation Cleanout," which should be completed by year's end. INS agents promise that the Colorado effort will soon result in mass arrests and at least put a pinch in the steady flow of forged green cards into Denver.

Still, stopping green-card fraud is not at the top of the INS priority list. John Torres, the assistant director of investigations for the INS in Denver, acknowledged that it ranked fourth, behind prosecuting criminal aliens, stopping smugglers and educating the community about the mission of the INS. Denver is not unique. Torres came here six months ago from Los Angeles, where buying a fake green card is still easier than buying a movie ticket. "Denver is a smaller city, but its problems are relative to scale."

Indeed, one watchdog group said that Colorado lags behind only Mississippi in the increase of aliens in the past decade. And it's not just about jobs. Forged documents involve stealing the identities of unsuspecting Americans. "Once [illegals] get a Social Security card, they can start working backwards until they get a birth certificate," says Torres. "And once they start working with a Social Security number that belongs to someone else, it creates tax problems, bank problems -- all sorts of problems. It could take [the victims] years to untangle the mess."

Two weeks after INS agents allegedly "stopped" the laundromat from churning out new identities, there's little evidence that Operation Cleanout has had any lasting impact. Becoming an American in Denver today is as easy as standing next to a pay phone outside the laundromat's entrance and waiting for a man named Alejandro to walk by and ask, "You looking for somebody?"

In 1940, declaring an act of national defense, the U.S. Congress passed the Alien Registration Act, which required all non-U.S. citizens living in the country to register with the federal government at their local post office. On April 17, 1951, any foreign-born person without documents was declared "illegal" and was subject to immediate prosecution and deportation. Those who were "legal" and stayed filled out the I-151 Form and were issued a green card, the Alien Registration Receipt Card.