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.

"As a result," reads the official history from INS archives, "the Form I-151 card represented security to its holder. It indicated the right to live and work in the United States permanently and instantly communicated that right to law enforcement officials." Over the next 25 years, the green card would undergo seventeen redesigns to elude counterfeiters.

Each change was met with an evasion. By 1986, jobless Americans wanted assurances that they had first dibs on work -- even if it was picking cabbage, washing dishes or busting rocks. That year, INS officials reported to the U.S. Congress that illegal immigration, aided by green-card fraud, would continue to surge into Colorado and squeeze the labor economy.

In response, Congress passed the Immigration Reform and Control Act, which held employers who hired foreign-born workers responsible for the legitimacy of their green cards. For the first time, immigrants were forced to show at least two forms of identity -- most commonly used were the green card and a Social Security card -- if they wanted to work. The employers themselves then needed to certify that "the documents appear genuine and relate to the individual"; they were prosecuted for harboring illegal aliens only if they knew the documents were "obviously fraudulent." The days of hiring illegal workers and then playing ignorant to the INS were, apparently, over.

The reaction to the 1986 law was swift. But it wasn't the employers who suddenly shaped up. Instead, immigrants sought another way around the newest obstacle. Phony green cards began popping up like mushrooms in a cow pasture. Some of the more hurried attempts to mimic the resident alien card were so pathetic that Denver INS agents recall confiscating cards that were colored in by crayons.

The reform act unleashed a frenzy, according to Jim Salvator, a Denver immigration attorney who has represented scores of immigrants during the past two decades. Salvator recalls a time when his clients didn't need to pay him the potential thousands of dollars in legal fees and spend months, even years, to obtain a legitimate green card. "Once the law went into effect," Salvator says, "the supply quickly met the demand."

In the ongoing battle, the INS also issued a new, laminated, souped-up card in 1989, but the story remained the same. The anti-fraud technology utilized for the 1989 card was quickly matched by counterfeiting technology.

By 1994, federal officials tried another approach. In a report to Congress, the Commission on Immigration Reform stated that "the single most important step that could be taken to reduce unlawful migration is the development of a more effective system for verifying an employee's authorization to work."

The report complained that aside from the green card, the INS was allowing too many types of identification to be used for employers. There are 27 other forms of identification that foreign-born persons can use to be eligible to work. In Colorado, for instance, aliens can use the Colorado Certification Identification Card. But like other forms of identification, the Colorado Certification Identification Card is only valid alongside a "feeder card," one as commonplace and trusted as the Social Security card. Aliens prefer the green card, because that's what most employers are familiar with.

After feeling the criticism from other federal departments that were getting dragged into the swamp of green-card fraud (such as the Department of Labor, which was busy investigating its own labor complaints), INS officials announced that they would devise a plan to eradicate bogus green cards. Included in the plan would be a reduction in the number of passable forms of ID from 27 to 14; the investigation of green-card rings; and the prosecution of employers for knowingly hiring illegal aliens with false identification.

In 1998, with much fanfare, the INS announced that it was issuing a new green card -- using the Integrated Card Production System -- which is as thick as a credit card and fronted with a hologram image. Nevertheless, the better-known green cards are still valid for at least the next five years, fronting counterfeiters a grace period. And, according to INS officials and news reports, counterfeiters are already getting just as sophisticated and beginning to create a new product.

Criminals, fueled by high profits, will find ways to keep up, says Carl Rusnok, spokesman for the INS's central region, which includes Colorado and sixteen surrounding states. In some ways, the job may be getting easier. "It used to be that a counterfeiter had to have some skill. Now, with their technology matching ours, gee whiz, anyone can counterfeit," he says.

Not to be outdone, the INS also issued a "green card verifier," a desktop machine that allowed employers to swipe a card through to check its legitimacy. INS officials had hoped to ship the device to 16,000 employers nationwide, but the pilot program was largely ignored; by 1999, only 2,500 employers had accepted the machine. In a report to Congress, INS officials conceded, "In the current tight labor market, employers would not have enough authorized workers applying for jobs if they participated in a verification pilot." None of the machines have yet reached Colorado.

Still reeling, Washington, D.C.-based INS officials compiled a list of five priorities and sent them out to all of their field offices. At the top is the prosecution of criminal aliens, both legal and illegal. (As a result of 1996's controversial Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, immigration courts are flooded.) The checklist then cites smuggling and community education about the immigration department.

Near the bottom is the fraud fight, combined with monitoring work-site conditions and exploitation. According to fiscal reports, the INS spends an estimated "2 percent of its enforcement resources" to accomplish its fourth and fifth priorities, a number so tiny that it isn't itemized on budget reports. In 1999 the INS spent $20 million on "interior enforcement," which includes green-card fraud. But more than half of that money, $11.8 million, went toward detaining and tracking criminal aliens and smugglers. The rest is spent on juvenile detention centers and staff.

Says spokesman Rusnok, in an apparent understatement, "Unfortunately, counterfeiting green cards has become more than a major problem."

In November 1998, INS agents made their biggest bust ever when they seized nearly 2 million blank green cards from a warehouse in Los Angeles (Operation Fine Print). In that same year, the U.S. government issued about 1 million authentic green cards.

Last May, the Denver INS field office closed its first green-card fraud investigation (Operation Washout) after agents seized about 2,100 blank green cards and about as many Social Security cards. The agents were tipped off after two Denver patrol officers responded to a loud-music complaint at an apartment in southwest Denver. After the patrol officers spied a laminator and cameras, they called the INS. Agents found dozens of Colorado birth certificates and bogus driver's licenses from Utah, California and Colorado. The leader of the ring, Arturo Marina Delgado, aka "Pirata," pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 24 months in prison. His accomplices served lesser sentences and were deported.

Despite the increase in green-card raids -- or least the increase in publicizing them -- the INS received its harshest criticism on July 1, 1999, when the United States General Accounting Office handed down a report that torched the department for its halfhearted efforts.

The GAO report reminded the government agency that it once claimed the "single most important" step to curbing illegal immigration was to develop a better anti-fraud system. The report noted that the "Immigration Reform and Control Act's employment verification process is easily thwarted by fraud. Numbers of unauthorized aliens have used fraudulent documents to circumvent the employment verification process."

Richard Stana, the GAO's director for justice issues, says the INS has devoted too few of its resources to fulfilling its stated mission. Stana says the proliferation of bogus documents has become so pervasive that the INS needs more help.

"It's not within the ability of the INS alone to take on this problem. What they are spending in resources over the past few years is clearly not enough to go where they need to go. Most of their resources and manpower are going into the southwest border, to stop the immigration there," he says. "But it's sort of like football. If you put all eleven of your players on the line of scrimmage, you've set yourself up. The other team just needs to lob one over your line. If [an immigrant] can get past that line to a major city like Denver, then he can get a green card. And once you have that, you've got a job."

The GAO report found that INS investigations move at such a lax pace, employers who hire illegal aliens have little to fear. In 1998, the INS investigated about 3 percent of the country's estimated employers who hire illegal aliens -- places like fruit fields, restaurants, quarries.

In a review of the INS's prosecution rate, the GAO found that of the 9,600 employers investigated nationwide by the INS, criminal proceedings resulted just 2 percent of the time. INS officials attributed the modest results to several factors, but the foremost one was "widespread use of fraudulent documents," which, the report noted, has "made it difficult for INS to prove that an employer knowingly hired an unauthorized alien."

Of the $4.9 million in fines levied by the INS, only $2.5 million has been collected. The reason: When the INS busts an employer and takes away his illegal workforce, it usually drives him out of business and into bankruptcy. And despite its aging promise to reduce the number of passable documents from 27 to 14 two years ago, the INS still hasn't done so -- for reasons unexplained.

"Generally," the report concluded, "employers of unauthorized aliens have faced little likelihood that the INS would (1) investigate them, (2) prove that they knowingly hired unauthorized aliens, (3) collect fines, or (4) criminally prosecute them."

Finding an entity to investigate in Colorado isn't very hard, as the state has an estimated 80,000 employers. In 1998, the Denver INS field office investigated about fifty of them. One was prosecuted.

In October of that year, the INS raided Blue Mountain quarry in Lyons as part of Operation Stonewall. Mexican nationals are often hired on at quarries to do the difficult work of breaking and loading rocks. A Blue Mountain owner, who declined to identify himself, refused to talk about the raid, saying only, "It happened, we took care of it, and now we're moving on."

But the attorney who represented the quarry is still seething about the randomness of the enforcement. Daniel Sears, who has worked both as a federal prosecutor and as the state's first federal public defender, complains that he has never witnessed such a narrow display of justice. Blue Mountain sits among a field of other quarries in Boulder County, and competition is fierce. Competitors sabotage one another by calling the INS and claiming that their foe is hiring illegal workers and subjecting them to horrific working conditions at meager wages. Such tactics are a hazard of the industry, Sears says.

Court documents show that when the Blue Mountain raid occurred, INS agents hauled off six illegal workers. All of the men had bogus or expired documents. For this, Blue Mountain was charged with harboring illegal aliens. Through Sears, the company pleaded guilty, agreeing to pay the government $150,000 and accepting a five-year probation with random visits from the INS.

"I don't have a problem with the government investigating to see if there is a problem with the industry as a whole," says Sears. "In reality, the INS simply doesn't have the resources to detect all of the illegal workers in all jobs -- agriculture, construction, whatever. But Blue Mountain was singled out, and no other business up there has been put to a similar scrutiny. The explanation I was given was simply that the INS didn't have the resources to scrutinize everyone equally -- and I have a problem with that."

Conditions could deteriorate further. Now that Colorado's unemployment rate has dipped below 2.5 percent and flirts with 2 percent on a monthly basis, jobs are in heavy supply. And when the jobs are plentiful, the number of immigrants increases. According to the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a national nonprofit group that believes immigration should be "reduced to more historic levels," Colorado's immigrant population has climbed 136 percent since 1990.

FAIR spokesman David Ray asserts that the INS's inability to stop Social Security and green-card fraud only exacerbates immigration levels. "Employers are never going to reach out to the disadvantaged and poor citizens here in this country when they can freely hire illegal aliens with fake documents. As long as that continues, employers can secure docile workers who can't bargain for better working conditions or better pay because they know they are here illegally."

Adds Ray, "The scarier problem to this is the proliferation of illegal Social Security numbers being taken. It's utterly simple for illegal immigrants to get [Social Security] numbers, get a driver's license and become eligible to vote because of the motor-voter law. When we allow illegal aliens to come in, obtain false documents and then allow them to vote, that's a total breakdown of democracy."

Yet, even as pressures mount, there's still little to discourage employers from hiring illegal workers.

"The reality," Sears argues, "is that if they were to rely on Anglo employees, the product wouldn't be as good. Whether it's right or wrong, Mexican nationals are coming across the border because they are deprived, want to work, and will work. How the INS handles this problem is up to them. But right now, they deal with it in a very myopic fashion."

Jeffery Lembke has known for years that Zuni Plaza was the base for unbridled green-card selling. Lembke, an investigator with the INS, confirms that unlawful dealings at the coin-operated business have been common knowledge at the "local, state and federal" levels. Nonetheless, he says, "until now, they've been operating without the fear of getting caught."

On October 16, indictments were filed against four Mexican-born nationals for manufacturing green cards and selling them at the site. The owners of the laundromat were not indicted. Three of the defendants -- Steven Rivera-Lopez, aka "Hector Gabriel Rivera"; William Rene Espana-Vega, aka "Antonio Cardero-Garcia"; and Daniel Galvan, aka "Victor Martinez" -- have previous convictions for selling fake green cards.

Rivera-Lopez had been arrested in El Paso in 1997 and returned to Colorado in 1999. Espana-Vega was convicted in a U.S. district court in Abilene in 1996, served time, was deported, and returned by June 2000. Galvan was convicted of fraud in a U.S. district court in New Mexico in May 1999, served one year, was deported, and then returned to Denver.

With court documents sealed, little else is known about the defendants and how far their conspiracy reaches. Because the three main suspects amassed prior fraud convictions from different markets and have since met up in Denver, investigators believe that the roots of the organization dig deeper into a larger counterfeiting ring. "This goes much, much further than it looks," assures agent Lembke.

While investigators put their case together and the defendants sit in separate county jails across the region, the completion of Operation Cleanout is approaching. John Torres also says he isn't discouraged by the size of the undertaking or the overwhelming number of fake green cards that are out there. He disputes some critics -- immigration attorneys, namely -- who call the war on green cards a hopeless battle.

"If you look at it from the perspective of the victim," Torres says of those who have lost their Social Security number to fraud, "I guarantee you they are not going to say this is a waste of time and money."

Adds Lembke, "It's a frustrating situation. It's been something that's been known for a long time. The problem has been addressed. But the real problem is, once you arrest a handful of people that are dealing, others move right into that spot. It's an ongoing cycle."

On the first Sunday in November, Alejandro telephones his pretend Canadian customer just as the Denver Broncos are starting to tangle with the New York Jets on television. He instructs his customer to meet him outside the Blockbuster video store at 32nd Avenue and Federal Boulevard in one hour. Before he hangs up, Alejandro wants to know what type of car to look for: "What kind? What color? You be alone?"

At 3 p.m., the designated meeting time, it's still snowing outside and Alejandro is nowhere in sight. At 3:20 p.m., he arrives with his coat collar up around his ears and hands pushed deep into his pockets. He extends his hand for a handshake a good three steps away and offers his customer a wide, good-to-see-you-again smile.

Alejandro slips a small manila envelope over with his left hand. He keeps his hand extended until he receives the $170 in cash. He takes the money but doesn't count it. "You go to your car. Make sure it's good," he says. Because Alejandro's customer isn't really a jittery Canadian citizen, quality is not a big issue, but he nods and returns to his car.

Clearly, the fakes are suspect. At first glance the card is passable, but closer scrutiny reveals its blemishes: The horizontal strip across the top dips to the right; the thumbprint is the size of a child's digit; the signature is hesitantly forged -- and mistakenly printed in all caps. The Social Security card, meanwhile, feels nearly as thin as binder paper and looks like it slipped out of a bubble gum machine.

When the customer looks up from his driver's seat, Alejandro is looking directly at him. Alejandro gives the thumbs-up sign and asks with a raise of the eyebrows, "Everything okay?"

Everything is okay.

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Justin Berton