Special Reports

Don't ask, don't tell drives Valley employment

From his cramped trailer office along a dusty road lined with grape vines near Selma, Guillermo Zamora hires farmworkers by the dozens and dispatches them across Fresno County to prune and pick crops. He's a Mexican immigrant farmworker turned farm-labor contractor — the go-to guy for laborers who need jobs and growers who need workers.

Most days, he rumbles along country roads in his Chevy Silverado pickup with orange flame decals. The American flag on the dashboard lets people know where his allegiance lies.

"You ain't going to find a Mexican more proud to be an American," said Zamora, a legal U.S. resident, on a recent summer morning. "This is a beautiful country."

The truth is, though, Zamora doesn't hire Americans. Farm labor contractors and most other employers in the Valley's multibillion-dollar agriculture industry rely almost exclusively on immigrants — mostly illegal immigrants.

Employers hire them as long as they have a forged Social Security card and a green card, which can be bought for less than $100 through a vast underground industry of fake-document vendors in the Central Valley.

The system works well for farmers and farmworkers — as well as many restaurants, hotels and construction companies. But many innocent legal residents are hurt because document counterfeiters often hijack their Social Security numbers.

Agriculture employers often say they can't tell whether the cards are real — but hardly any use a voluntary government online program that helps detect fakes. They say that if they did, they would go out of business. Says Zamora: "I'd end up with no people."

The scheme keeps the Central Valley's economy running on a simple, unspoken rule: Don't ask, don't tell. Employees pretend they're legal residents; employers pretend they don't know any better.

"It's a game — a big game," said Joseph Riofrio, a city councilman in the western Fresno County farmworker town of Mendota, where perhaps a third of the residents are illegal immigrants. "But it's a necessary game. If this game doesn't continue, then the fruit isn't picked, the vegetables aren't picked, and the vibrant agriculture industry stops."

Lidia's grandmother didn't want her to cross the border. She had heard too many stories of children dying on the journey. Lidia's mother felt differently. One day when Lidia was 3, her mother took the girl on what she said was a shopping trip. They never came back.

On their first attempt at crossing near Tijuana, a border agent chased them down. They were released the next day. Lidia's mother said they would try a second time. Lidia cried until she fell asleep in her mother's arms.

The next thing Lidia remembers, she and her mom were under a freeway on the other side of the border listening to traffic rushing overhead. A car stopped and honked its horn. They got in.

That's how Lidia got to Selma.

After high school, Lidia needed a job. First, though, she had to get documents that would let her work.She asked her friends what to do. They took her to a woman who sold her a Social Security card and a green card for $120. The cards didn't look real, but she hoped they would do the trick.

A friend told her she should apply at a packinghouse that was known to hire illegal immigrants.

"I asked her if it was OK to apply even though I was undocumented and she said, 'Oh yeah, it's fine because everyone is undocumented there so it won't make a big difference if your papers are strange-looking or something,' " Lidia said.

She got the job.

A few months later, Lidia's mother suggested she try to get a job at a Selma restaurant where she worked. Lidia hesitated because she knew most of the workers at the restaurant were legal residents. But she figured that if her mom — who also uses fake documents — could get a job there, she could, too.

Once again, she got the job.

"They asked me for my documents and they just wrote down the numbers and that was it," said Lidia, now 23. "I guess it's their normal routine. They didn't even ask me if they were fake."

Lidia's story is not uncommon. Several other illegal immigrants interviewed said that they, too, have been able to find jobs in the fields, at packinghouses and with construction companies using fake documents.

They haven't always been successful. Some larger packinghouses, for example, have begun in recent years to be more careful about who they hire. Word eventually gets around about which businesses will hire illegal immigrants and which won't.

It's almost always easy, however, to get a job working in the fields using fake documents.

"Most of the farm labor contractors, they just look at the documents and say, 'That's OK. We want people to work,' " said Gracilia, a 42-year-old illegal immigrant who worked in the fields near Reedley and now lives in Orosi.

A growing number of counterfeiters in the Central Valley produce fake documents such as Social Security cards, driver's licenses, birth certificates, passports and green cards — documents needed to get a job.The Valley, in fact, has a bigger fake-document market for illegal workers than Los Angeles or the Bay Area, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials say.

"It's very prevalent," said Ray Greenlee, a San Francisco-based ICE official who oversees the agency's investigative activities in Northern California. "You could go to any of those towns — Huron, Kerman, Madera — and find that type of thing. All throughout the Valley there are document vendors."

Brian Poulsen, who retired at the beginning of this year as the top ICE official in Fresno, estimates "dozens and dozens" of vendors are in the central San Joaquin Valley — if not more.

It's easy to find them. Illegal immigrants say they asked around at flea markets or talked to friends or co-workers. The vendors often go by aliases or witty nicknames like "El Consul" and advertise their services with business cards.

Some operations are nothing more than a couple of people armed with a camera, printer and scanner. It takes them just a few hours to produce a set of fake documents, immigration officials say.

Others are sophisticated rings based in Los Angeles or outside California that work like an assembly line: one person recruits customers, another brings their information to a fake-document "mill," another produces the documents and a runner delivers the goods to clients.

Such operations have been around for decades, although they proliferated after immigration reform in 1986 required employers to record workers' Social Security numbers. During the 1990s, document rings in Los Angeles distributed tens of thousands of blank cards to vendors across the country who would paste their clients' photos onto the cards and laminate them.

In the past decade, improved technology has made it easier for smaller vendors to enter the market. Most in the Valley are mom-and-pop operations that can disappear quickly if they suspect authorities are closing in.

"Some people get into it because they have a friend who shows them how easy it is, or they just learn on their own," said Charles Lee, a U.S. federal defender in Fresno who has handled several fake-document vendor cases.

Recently, Poulsen said, document rings in Los Angeles have begun setting up franchises. For a monthly fee, they'll provide someone in Fresno with the equipment, training and support to create documents. The franchisee gets to keep any profits.

Meanwhile, farmers are increasingly relying on farm-labor contractors, who sometimes work with document vendors and human smugglers who help illegal immigrants cross the border, immigration officials say. They form a perfect trifecta — a full-service crime ring that allows a farmworker in Mexico to sneak into the United States, assume a false identity and get a job — all for a single fee.

"Illegal immigration today is very much an organized crime," said Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies at the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Immigration Studies, which supports stricter immigration enforcement.

"The smuggler gets them across the border, stashes them for a while and gets them to their final destination. Then there's another group of people who work for this organization and know who is looking for workers and hooks them up with papers."

With employers so willing to hire illegal immigrants, some workers try to get work even if they lack fake documents. Occasionally, a worker will present a copy of a green card instead of the original. Others will write down a Social Security number on a piece of scrap paper. Sometimes it's "123-45-6789" or "000-00-0000."

But they usually don't get hired. Employers know that hiring workers with no documents at all would tell ICE they knowingly employ illegal immigrants.

"If somebody gives me a Social Security card that's handwritten, that's a flag right there," Zamora said. "[ICE] could say, ‘Didn't you see that?' "

So the fake documents are a cover: As long as workers have something that could pass as legitimate, employers can defend themselves.

Manuel Cunha, president of the Fresno-based Nisei Farmers League, an agriculture association that spans five western states, advises members not to keep copies of their employees' documents — just to be safe.Poulsen, the former Fresno ICE official, said it's usually obvious when documents are fake. Immigration law, however, allows employers to feign ignorance.

"It's a loophole," Poulsen said. "You can tell a false immigration card from a good distance away, but an employer can say, ‘Oh, I thought it was a good card.' You can't prove they knew, so it's just a wink and a nod. But maybe that's the way the politicians want it."

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