MICHELE NORRIS, Host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
Illegal immigrants who've made it past the border and into the U.S. face a big challenge, finding some form of identification that allows them to work and travel. In California, as in many states, illegal immigrants can't get a driver's license so many turn to forgers. NPR's Luke Burbank has the story.
LUKE BURBANK reporting:
How much would you pay to have a completely new identity? In Los Angeles, the going rate is around 100 bucks.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE #1: Well, the guy's coming up to us right now.
UNIDENTIFIED MALES (Speaking foreign language)
BURBANK: It's a gorgeous Monday afternoon and NPR engineer, Carlos Encincio(ph) and I are driving around McArthur Park, just west of downtown L.A. If it were statistically possible for a neighborhood to be more than 100 percent immigrant, this area would be. By no coincidence, it's also a hot-bed for the illegal document trade. Fake driver's licenses, social security cards, resident alien cards, student IDs from any college you want, it's all available here. Our mission is to find out how easy it is to come by the stuff and it only takes a few minutes before people start approaching the car.
UNIDENTIFIED MALES (Speaking foreign language)
BURBANK: On just about every corner are small clusters of men, their baseball caps pulled down low, their eyes darting back and forth furtively. If their gaze meets yours for even a moment, they'll flash you a hand sign like the letter C. This lets you know they're selling micas(ph) or fake IDs. In the 20 or so minutes we circle the park, we're approached six times.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE #2: It's like going to a photomat.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE #3: Yeah. Basically yeah, one hour, yeah, one hour photo, yeah. One hour processing. You have...
BURBANK: It comes as no surprise to Officer Henry Coverubias(ph).
HENRY COVERUBIAS (Officer, Los Angeles): The area I'm showing you right now is 7th and Alverado here.
BURBANK: Coverubias sits in front of a computer screen in the Rampart Police Division headquarters. He's assigned to the fraudulent documents unit. Through a network of cameras located around McArthur Park, he's watching two men exchange money in front of a McDonald's. One of them is buying a fake ID.
BURBANK: There'll be another person that'll come into the picture here that will take the order and take it over to the manufacturing mill. So we're sitting here watching these guys who, it's very likely, are involved in a mica(ph) illegal-type production. You're watching them and yet, you're not going to go arrest them right now?
Officer COVERUBIAS: I don't have the proper people right now. I need more than just myself on here to arrest them.
BURBANK: The fake documents unit is comprised of Coverubias and his partner, two officers. He says to get on top of the problem there really needs to be like 25 assigned to the task. Working together they shut down maybe one fake document mill a month.
Officer COVERUBIAS: But as fast as we take one down, another one comes up. The cost is not that much in return for the profit that they can make.
BURBANK: Forgers can get into the fake ID business for around a thousand bucks. All they need is a computer, a machine for laminating, and Adobe software. And the IDs are convincing, says Coverubias' boss, Lieutenant Matthew St. Pierre.
MATTHEW ST. PIERRE (Lieutenant, Police Department): We've had people get out of custody with them, present them as ID and get released from jail with them. We've had murder suspects who've used them to get away.
BURBANK: Police say there's been a new, even more dangerous element added to the fake ID trade over the last few years; gangs. In McArthur Park, the Crazy Riders and the 18th Street gang charge up to $1,500 a week to the guys who stand on the corner just for the right to work there. What started out 30 years ago with a few men with typewriters sitting in the back of vans has become a multi-million dollar criminal enterprise.
Officer COVERUBIAS: It's a nice chunk of change here when you think about it. It's making more than me, I know that.
BURBANK: Is that, that's got to be a little frustrating at times.
Officer COVERUBIAS: You know, it can be but I don't let it get to me. It's a job that I've chosen and it's just the way things work.
BURBANK: Instead of a raise though, Coverubias and his partner are asking the LAPD to dedicate more officers to breaking up fake document rings, a task he says is a little bit like bailing out the ocean with a teaspoon.
Luke Burbank, NPR News, Los Angeles.
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