Without document counterfeiters, employers would have a tough time hiring illegal workers. Yet even the federal agency charged with combating illegal immigration puts a low priority on catching them.
Vendors operating at flea markets and inside apartments run rampant — especially in rural communities.
In the Central Valley’s small towns, “We don’t make a dent,” said Brian Poulsen, who retired this year as the top U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement official in Fresno.
On a national level, ICE spent 7.4% of its staff time in 2009 fighting identity theft. Much of that was devoted to tracking down people who steal identities so they can get government benefits — not jobs. ICE has 17 fraud task forces, but none are in Fresno.
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Poulsen said ICE officials here are understaffed and are tied up with other responsibilities, including tracking down drug rings and child pornography offenders.
As a result, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Fresno says ICE has sent prosecutors just seven document fraud cases in the last three years. While not numerous, the cases show how the thriving fake-document business operates in the Valley.
One of the defendants was Oscar David Vasquez, a 26-year-old illegal immigrant who fled Honduras because he was discriminated against and abused for being gay. When he got to the Central Valley, he wasn’t able to work in the fields or do much hard labor because he is a “diminutive guy,” said his attorney, Richard Beshwate. Instead, he created fake documents, charging clients $100 for Social Security and green cards.
ICE agents were tipped off about Vasquez’s operation by an anonymous caller in October 2009, according to an indictment. An undercover agent arranged a meeting with Vasquez at the Fiesta Foods parking lot in central Fresno so he could buy some documents. When they met, Vasquez snapped a few pictures of the undercover agent with his cell phone camera and wrote down his personal information. Two hours later, Vasquez returned with the forged documents.
ICE staged two more stings — both at the Walmart in Madera. During the third sting, agents followed Vasquez to a house in Madera where he was renting a bedroom. The landlord, Daniel Aquino-Perez, admitted that he helped Vasquez create about 20 sets of fake Social Security and green cards. Inside, agents discovered a laptop computer, a printer, a paper cutter and a laminator.
Both defendants entered a plea deal. In August, Aquino-Perez, 22, was sentenced to 10 months in jail and Vasquez to 15 months. Both likely will be deported.
In another recent case, agents were tipped off about a man named Jose who was selling “micas” — green cards. Agents conducted three sting operations — twice at the Walmart in Tulare and once at the Walmart in Selma — and purchased several Social Security and green cards for $80 to $90 per set. They discovered that Jose’s real name was Salomon Rodriguez and that he and his wife, Veronica Capitaine-Rosales, had “offices” in Fresno, Tulare, Selma and Merced.
Rodriguez gave undercover agents his business card, which included the words “computer worker” and “digital photography” in Spanish.
In March, Rodriguez was sentenced to 10 months in jail and has since been deported to Mexico, said Charles Lee, his attorney.
Other document-vendor operations are more complex. In Bakersfield, six illegal immigrants — one Salvadoran and five Mexicans — worked with a U.S. citizen to run a fake-document ring that attracted customers at Hispanic grocery stores. Authorities said the Social Security cards, green cards and drivers licenses they manufactured were of high quality. They were arrested in February 2009 after a three-month investigation and received sentences ranging from nine months to two years.
One of the defendants, a security guard, worked the streets recruiting customers. Others in the ring operated out of two apartments and a house.
“It was a pretty sophisticated operation,” said Jason Webster, a Kern County deputy district attorney who prosecuted the case.
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