Undercover reporter finds US IDs for sale to illegal immigrants

Support migrant centric journalism today and donate

The United States is currently undergoing the largest wave of immigration in over a century, reports CBS news on April 20. But what makes this wave like no other is that so much of it is illegal.

There are approximately 11 million illegal immigrants now in the United States. That equals the population of Ohio. These immigrants are coming for jobs, of course. But to be hired by an American factory, they need documents.

So a black market of identities for sale has sprung up and has spread from the Southwest, where Hispanic immigrants used to settle, to places in the heartland, which will never be the same. Correspondent Bob Simon reports.

If you ever go out looking for the American heartland, when you get to Schuyler, Neb., you'll know you've found it.

The face of the land is unmistakably the wind-swept Plains of the Midwest. But increasingly, the faces of the people who live here are Hispanic.

Eighty percent of the first graders at Schuyler Grade School are Hispanic. But that wasn't always the case. Back in 1985, there wasn't a single Hispanic student at this school. Today, Schuyler is moving to a different beat – and that's fine with Schuyler's mayor, Dave Reinecke.

"What would you rather have, if you were living here in Schuyler?" asks Reinecke. "Would you rather have growth, or would you wanna pick and choose where they came from?"

This town of 5,000 is home to so many immigrants because of the Cargill Meatpacking Plant on the edge of town. Eighty percent of the plant's 2,100 workers are Hispanic. But this is not your typical story about making it in America.

Ivan Hernandez and Juan Marino of Mexico have worked at the plant under false identities. They can't show their faces because they're in the United States illegally. And, they say, they're hardly the only ones.

"I think if the immigration services raided any of the meat plants in the area, I think all the plants would be left with practically no workers," says Hernandez, who adds that 40 percent of the workers at the Cargill plant are here illegally.

It's a number that is disputed by Mark Klein, Cargill's public relations officer. "I don't think it's possible," says Klein.

"How many would you estimate are what we call 'illegal immigrants?'" asks Simon.

"I have no reason to suspect that any of them are," says Klein.

To get a job with a company like Cargill, you need papers. 60 Minutes Wednesday sent two staffers - production assistant Ignacio Garcia, and cameraman Ray Bribiesca - to Nebraska to find a man known in Schuyler's Hispanic community for peddling documents.

Posing as illegal immigrants looking for work at the Cargill plant, Garcia and Bribiesca went undercover and found their man, bar owner Michael Cuba.

Garcia asked how much he'd have to pay for a Social Security card and a birth certificate. Cuba said the price was $1,300 for both. Garcia wanted to know if the Social Security card would be authentic. Cuba said yes. Then, Garcia and Bribiesca told Cuba they'd come back in 48 hours with the money.

Schuyler's police chief, Lenny Hiltner, knows that stolen identities are being sold around town. How? By the phone calls he gets all the time from angry Americans. "And that ranges from the city of Schuyler to Texas to California," says Hiltner. "Victims that have had their identity stolen, and have found that they're either wanted in Nebraska...."

"In other words, a guy sitting in a Texas finds out that he's wanted for a crime in Nebraska, then calls you, realizing that somebody has stolen his identity?" asks Simon.

"Correct," says Hiltner.

But illegal immigrants aren't just flocking to Nebraska. Go to almost any city in America today and you'll see them hanging out on street corners, waiting for employers to drive by and give them work.

Terry Anderson is an auto mechanic from South Central Los Angeles who found his true calling as the host of a one-issue talk show. The issue of his show is illegal immigration: "There are so many people that are angry about illegal immigration, the lack of enforcement, the numbers, the school system, the lack of entry level and skill jobs for American citizens, and American legal immigrants, that now this subject is just huge."

His show is syndicated nationwide, and every Sunday night, the phone calls pour in from all corners of the country.

"Illegal immigration has been going on for a long time," says Simon. "Why is it such a hot topic now?"

"Because it's gotten so much worse, so much faster," says Anderson.

And perhaps no state has been affected as much as Arizona. That's because most illegal immigrants these days cross into America along the Arizona border.

The U.S. Border Patrol says that in 2004, it apprehended 235,000 people trying to cross the border illegally in Cochise County, Ariz. And it's estimated that for every person who's caught, four make it across the border. That means that in Cochise County alone, around a million illegal immigrants crossed into the United States last year.

Using high-tech equipment, the border patrol scans the ground day and night. But border patrol agents say they may be fighting a losing battle. The volume is simply overwhelming, and the fence separating Arizona and Mexico is underwhelming in the extreme. In some places, there is an actual wall. But for most of Arizona's 350-mile border, there is nothing more than a tattered barbed wire fence, cut and clipped every night by people coming across.

"All you need is a pair of wire cutters and you can come through, come through at will," says Jack Ladd, a longtime rancher in Bisbee, Ariz. The border with Mexico runs for 10 miles on his property, and about 100 illegal immigrants cross his ranch every day. Just one step separates you from Mexico and the United States.

"We are the United States of America, free country, land of immigrants. And I don't know that you wanna put up a wall or a fence around this country -- because that's not really what we're about," says John Torres, who works for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the successor to the INS.

Torres says stopping poor Mexican workers from getting into America is by no means his biggest problem – especially after 9/11: "Do we wanna go out and arrest a kitchen worker, or do we wanna go out and arrest someone who is a visa overstay, who has a HAZMAT driver's license -- who might actually have access to a nuclear power plant?"

"Does that mean that a Mexican who's coming in here illegally to go work in a meatpacking plant now has an easier ride than he would have had before 9/11?" asks Simon.

"I wouldn't say he has an easier ride," says Torres. "I'd say he's lower on the priority scale."

Even when violators are caught at the border, there is limited room at detention centers, so many are simply set free. They are told they have to report to a court within six months, and given letters to that effect. But more than 90 percent never do.

Last summer, a 60 Minutes Wednesday camera caught two Guatemalans and two Hondurans leaving a detention center with those very letters. After a quick wave goodbye from a border patrol agent, the four proudly displayed their letters, and then proceeded to disappear. They would certainly start looking for work, and they would be most welcome in places like Schuyler.

"What would've happened to Schuyler if it had not been for this influx of 'illegal immigrants'?" asks Simon.

"Well, we could've been like a lot of other rural communities in Nebraska," says Reinecke. "We could've lost half our population, and who knows? We haven't."

Many American towns have been kept alive by the wave of illegal immigrants. But this has given American businesses little incentive to raise wages on the low end of the scale. And many will tell you that illegal immigrants are only doing the jobs Americans don't want.

"They are taking jobs that Americans will not take at that wage. Let me give you an example. Janitors in Century City and Beverly Hills, 10 years ago, were all making $11 an hour," says Anderson. "All of those companies got rid of the Americans, broke the union, brought in illegal aliens from Mexico and El Salvador. Paid them five bucks an hour. You gonna tell me those black janitors don't still want those $11 jobs? Sure they do. They would probably be $15 jobs now. But guess what happened? They weren't gonna take 'em at $4 and $5 an hour."

But Ivan Hernandez would, and did. He says companies know exactly who they're employing and why: "I'm telling you it's a game. They want us to work because they know that we have no rights here, so they know we're only going to work and work. They produce a lot while we get miserable wages. And since we have the need, we have no choice."

To get his job at the Cargill meatpacking plant in Schuyler, Hernandez bought the Social Security card of a Californian on the black market. How does he then go about getting a job?

"I memorize the Social Security number, the birth date on the birth certificate and the names of the parents," says Hernandez. "And when they called me for an interview, a friend had already told me what they would ask me and I got the job."

But Cargill's PR director, Mark Klein, says he doesn't believe imposters can get jobs since the company checks the Social Security numbers of job applicants with local Social Security offices. And that, he says, is more than the law requires: "I feel very good that the people that are coming here now are legal. That they do have the proper documentation."

But the Social Security Administration told 60 Minutes Wednesday that it's not set up to establish whether or not more than one person is earning wages on the same Social Security card. Hence, the vendors and buyers.

"Are you saying that you don't know about this network of document vendors that's operating in the shadows of your plant?" asks Simon.

"No, I have not heard about it here," says Klein. "I've read articles that those rings exist. But, no, I've not."

Well, 60 Minutes Wednesday already found one of those rings -- and it was time to go back and complete the transaction. Bribiesca and Garcia, our staffers who had posed as illegal immigrants, returned to see the bar owner who promised to provide the stolen identities needed for employment. Cuba, the bar owner, asked Garcia to go to a back room to seal the deal -- and told him his new name: Ricardo Torres Camacho.

With that name, Cuba told Garcia that he could get a job at the Cargill plant. Garcia handed over $1,300 in cash in exchange for a Social Security card and a birth certificate. He was now a Puerto Rican named Ricardo Torres Camacho.

The Social Security card looked real, and the birth certificate had an official-looking stamp, along with Camacho's birth date, birthplace and the names of his parents. 60 Minutes Wednesday was reluctant to take Cuba's word for it, so we flew to Ponce, Puerto Rico, Camacho's alleged hometown.

After four days and the help of an investigator, 60 Minutes Wednesday found Camacho, who confirmed that all of the information on the Social Security card and the birth certificate was correct. Not only that, Camacho said they were his real documents.

He was somewhat surprised to learn that 60 Minutes Wednesday had bought his papers thousands of miles away in Nebraska.

Camacho has been homeless for the past six months. He sleeps in a filthy abandoned home in the center of town. The story he told us was that he didn't sell his documents. He lost them.

So now, we have this man, the real Ricardo Torres Camacho. And we have the documents we bought in Nebraska with the name Ricardo Torres Camacho.

But there's more. There is yet another Ricardo Torres Camacho, an illegal immigrant using the same Social Security number as the real Camacho in Puerto Rico. This Camacho lives and works in Kansas, at a meatpacking plant in Dodge City, run by Cargill Meat Solutions, the same company that told 60 Minutes Wednesday that it doesn't employ illegal immigrants.

60 Minutes Wednesday went back to Klein at Cargill with this discovery. Klein told us that the Camacho at the Dodge City plant had been working there for four years. But when confronted with the evidence, Klein admitted that Camacho had been using someone else's identity.

"I'm still confident that we run it very tight," says Klein.

"But in January, you said you were confident that there weren't illegal immigrants working in your plant," says Simon.

"I was confident that, based on what we've been told, that they are legal," says Klein. "And we are going to assume that they're legal."

Adds Klein: "If they present us with the documents, we can't look at them and just speculate that because they're Hispanic or because they don't speak English that they could be illegal."

According to the letter of the law, Klein is right. An employer is not obliged to prove that a worker is legally in the United States. He just has to make what is called a good faith effort.

So immigrants continue to pour through this loophole into America, where they will be illegal -- and unofficially welcome.