ID theft ring exposed before raids

The story of a sting in Worthington, Minn., offers a glimpse into the difficulties of stopping the brisk business of selling false IDs.

Immigration agents first zeroed in on an identity-theft operation in Worthington, Minn., in the summer, when a man selling Puerto Rican birth certificates and Social Security cards for $850 made a deal with an informant.

The seller arranged to meet the informant at a house near downtown Worthington, a town populated by hundreds of recent immigrants who work at the big Swift & Co. meatpacking plant.

When the informant's car pulled up, the man handed over a white envelope containing the authentic identification of a Puerto Rican man, according to court documents. It's the gold standard for fake ID.

The federal documents concerning the investigation into Bismarck Guillen-Esquivel, a Honduran national who was indicted last month, offer a peek into the kinds of false identification schemes behind the arrest of 1,282 workers at Swift plants across the nation this week.

But even high-profile arrests are unlikely to stem the demand for false identification, which is the ticket to the workplace for thousands of illegal immigrants, say Minnesota law enforcement and immigration officials.

"There's 12 million undocumented people in the U.S., and 1,200 were arrested this week," said Mike Cumiskey, the police chief in Worthington. "It's a drop in the bucket. There's got to be a better way."

Minnesotans who are in frequent contact with illegal immigrants say that selling authentic Puerto Rican documents is just one way to obtain work papers.

Some middle men actually try to buy the identification of homeless people, poor people giving blood at blood banks, or otherwise living on "skid row," Cumiskey said. They then sell their identity to illegal immigrant workers.

Other middle men simply forge green cards, Social Security cards and other documents, and sell them to workers.

"But if the company you're trying to work for is part of the government's pilot program [to detect false Social Security numbers], that's not going to work for you," Cumiskey said. "You want the Puerto Rican documents."

Those documents, he said, could be used at plants such as Swift and other companies that check Social Security numbers against government databases.

None of the workers arrested at the Swift plant in Worthington were charged with identity theft, according to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Elsewhere, 65 people arrested in the immigration raids faced charges related to identity theft.

Unlike a lot of identity theft, which increasingly relies on computer hacking and other high-tech means, illegal immigrants typically use much more simple ways to get documents that allow them to work, immigration attorneys said.

The case also shows how tough it is to stop the flood of these documents into Minnesota workplaces.

Take a walk down Lake Street in Minneapolis, for example, and some Hispanic shoppers talk matter-of-factly about the process. After a new immigrant arrives in Minnesota, the immigrant asks friends where to get "papers." Everyone seems to know someone who can oblige. The forged document isn't always perfect, but it's enough to get an immigrant a job interview.

"My friends told me right away I needed photos for a green card," recalled Miguel, a Minneapolis landscaper who did not want his last name used for this story. "They gave the guy my pictures and money. The next day we went to an apartment and got the card. I never saw those people again."

Eight days later, Miguel landed a job as a dishwasher.

The proliferation of false IDs among illegal immigrants began in the early 1990s, a few years after Congress -- for the first time -- imposed sanctions on employers who knowingly hire illegal workers, said Karen Ellingson, a St. Paul immigration attorney.

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