Longform

Card Sharps

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"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.

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Justin Berton