The Identity Makers

In the age of terror, are the people who make fake identification documents for the Hispanic community noble public servants -- or national security risks?

Every afternoon at 3 o'clock, Javier drops off his 3-year-old daughter, Vanessa, at the neighbors' apartment on his way to work. Vanessa's mother, who illegally crossed the border with Javier four years ago, moved back to Mexico last August to be with her family. But Javier, who's just 23 years old, stayed in America with Vanessa. He wants her to have an opportunity at a better life.

A pager and a cell phone clipped to his low-hanging belt, Javier walks the few short blocks to the corner of 24th and Mission streets. There he talks on the cell and mingles with passers-by until a young man in a bright white T-shirt, baggy jeans, and Timberland boots approaches. With a quick nod and a handshake, $60 changes hands, and Javier sets off south down Mission, while the young man crosses the street to begin pacing in front of McDonald's.

Twenty minutes later, Javier is back. Never making eye contact, he slows his pace only slightly as he hands the young man some papers. The man quickly turns right on 24th Street, tucking the papers into the back of his pants.

Javier crosses the street and sits on a circular concrete seat. "That was my buddy Arturo," Javier says, slightly out of breath. "I was expecting him."

Originally from Guadalajara, Mexico, Arturo crossed the border illegally two years ago. He has been saving money and sending it to his girlfriend so she could come to the U.S., too. But she told Arturo she was too afraid to cross by herself; she doesn't speak English and was afraid to be outside alone at night. Arturo paid coyotes, professional smugglers who guide people across the border from Mexico, $850 to meet her on the Mexican side of the border near San Diego. They helped her cross safely -- but then held her for more than three weeks in Los Angeles, until Arturo could come up with more money.

"I don't know what they did to her, but he was crazy trying to make money fast," Javier says. Arturo ended up paying the men who had his girlfriend almost $2,000; now that she's here, Javier says, Arturo can't take care of her as he'd planned. So she needs a job.

Javier sold Arturo a Social Security card and a California birth certificate for his girlfriend, Diana Lopez, who now has a new name: Maria Sandoval. "She should get a job with one of those big maid services, that's what I told him. They make $50 for, like, three hours. That's better than me today," Javier says, laughing and looking around to see if anyone else looks like he's there for documents. Arturo's IDs cost $60. Usually, Javier charges $80 for the pair, but he gave Arturo a discount, because of the problems he's faced recently.


Javier is part of a small document-counterfeiting operation in the Mission District of San Francisco. He and five colleagues all work the same area, primarily the corner of 24th and Mission streets. They all work for the same man -- Guillermo -- and they all share the feeling that they are doing good in the world. "He is the one who had a vision about how to help our people," says Mike, 30, who has been selling Social Security cards and an array of other documents for Guillermo for almost four years. Guillermo, 46, and his team of street salesmen supply thousands of illegal immigrants in San Francisco with fake papers every year.

"The difference between a happy family and a starving family is in my hands," Guillermo said early one recent morning, before reporting to his part-time job at a local service company. Thanks to the fake documents he produces, Guillermo, like many of his clients, is able to get a job that pays him $10 an hour. "Some people in this town, they see Mexicans as an excuse to be cheap," he said. "I feel sorry for my comrades who still stand outside on Cesar Chavez [seeking day work]. A lot of people who pick them up have no idea how to treat people fair. I do [this] so people get treated fair."

Thanks to loopholes in immigration law and a blind eye from local law enforcement, Guillermo has run his black-market business completely uninterrupted for 10 years. And in those 10 years, he has developed not only a lucrative enterprise, but also a vision for the future of Hispanic immigrants in America. Guillermo believes that he is a public servant, a saint even -- numerous neighbors and clients attest to the same -- and that his salesmen are the prophets of his good will.

Because of his documents, Guillermo says, immigrants get better wages, lead higher-quality lives, and are more productive members of society. He and his salesmen make and sell hundreds of documents per month to illegal immigrants, but Guillermo shakes off statistics about billions of dollars spent on immigrants who wind up in prison or use government social programs. "Sometimes people commit crimes because they don't know how else to do it," he said, his tone indicating that he clearly doesn't consider himself a criminal.

Because of the terrorism fears sparked by 9/11 and expanded by more recent major terror attacks, immigration reform has again reached the forefront of the U.S. public policy conversation. Some of the most far-reaching policy proposals would involve the creation of new, high-tech, and supposedly counterfeit-proof driver's licenses and Social Security cards.

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