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Fake nation: On the border (2nd in a 4-part series)

There’s a lot of overlap at the margins of legality and respectability. A college kid’s fake ID lives in this zone — illegal for now, but not as sketchy as it could be given that its owner will legitimately be able to drink in a few years. But college kids aren’t the fake-ID owners law enforcement is especially worried about.

As technology continues to improve, it’s getting easier and easier for illegal immigrants to get not just fake drivers’ licenses but also fake Social Security cards, birth certificates, green cards and other paperwork. Some of this activity comes down firmly on the wrong side of the semi-legal, semi-respectable world: The 9/11 hijackers used counterfeit documents to obtain real drivers’ licenses, which allowed them to enroll in flight school and later to buy plane tickets. Other situations aren’t as objectionable; it’s hard to fault, for example, an illegal immigrant whose children are citizens and established in this country for getting fake papers to keep the family together. And the intersection of the separate worlds of phony ID’s is everywhere.

The front business for the place I went a while back to get my (horribly obvious; see Part 1 of this series) fake is called “Immigration Services” (name changed to protect the guilty); the truck itself is named Maria’s (name again changed to protect the guilty) and appears to cater to a largely-Hispanic population. The rival truck across the street, Mr. Abu’s (changed again), presumably serves Philly’s large number of West African immigrants. I didn’t see any evidence that Maria’s was making fake green cards or anything other than drivers’ licenses and state ID’s; these operations are usually farther underground and more decentralized.

Los Angeles’ MacArthur Park is notorious for the huge number of fake-document vendors that set up shop there — they hang around the edges of the park and approach likely targets. Those that bite pay at the park, then are sent to a series of locations to get their photo taken, give their name, et cetera, and finally circle back to MacArthur to pick up their packet — to be had for as little as $300 — complete with Social Security card, birth certificate, driver’s license, whatever.

As soon as cops bust one ring, exponentially more spring up to replace it. Due to a loophole in employment law, all the incentives are there for employers to accept fake identification, thus continuing to attract illegal labor from outside the U.S. The law requires potential employees to present identification, proof of legal ability to work in this country. It doesn’t require employers to verify that any papers presented are legit (although businesses can get busted if they are found to employ illegals).

The Bush administration attempted to regulate this when the Real ID Act was passed in May 2005. By May of this year, state drivers’ licenses are required to meet certain federal specifications and to share certain aspects of their driver-registration databases with each other and with the feds. The new restrictions will certainly make it more difficult for illegal immigrants to get by with a set of fake papers — but the restrictions come with their own set of problems.

Civil-liberties advocates liken the Real ID to a Big Brother-style national ID; certain aspects of the Real ID could theoretically be used for surveillance and tracking of people who weren’t necessarily doing anything wrong. The restrictions could also further marginalize a group of people who are already on the edges of American society, making it even more difficult for families to make ends meet or remain together in the same country.

But at least 17 states are considering or have passed measures to allow illegal immigrants — or anyone without access to proper papers, which often includes lower-income legal residents — to drive and to secure some kind of ID with “driving certificates” or other papers that allow limited freedoms within the state boundaries. The ID’s wouldn’t be compliant with federal restrictions, so they wouldn’t get the bearer on an airplane, for example, but they’d at least allow people to meet basic survival needs.

It’s hard to feel bad when impatient college kids who can’t wait their turn for age-dependent privileges get busted for having a fake. It’s hard not to feel bad when entire groups of people are forced into social liminality over something as stupid as how difficult the government makes it to get proper working papers.

Next week: College kids and fakes — anthropology and the art of persuasion