Longform

Card Sharps

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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."

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Justin Berton