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2 Held in Raids on Major Phony Document Ring

Immigration: INS says printing press, 24,000 bogus Social Security cards were seized in Atwater Village. Operation allegedly shipped papers across U.S.

May 22, 1998|PATRICK J. McDONNELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Undercover Immigration and Naturalization Service agents based in Los Angeles have raided what authorities are calling one of the nation's largest counterfeit document operations, arresting two alleged ringleaders and seizing more than 24,000 phony Social Security cards, sophisticated printing equipment and other materials.

Documents produced by the ring--based in Los Angeles' Atwater Village neighborhood--have been found as far as New York, North Carolina and Texas, according to the INS.

Los Angeles, with its huge immigrant population, is a center of the booming phony document trade and the related people-smuggling industry, serving as a kind of national hub for the illicit commerce.

Through intricate networks, authorities say, forged documents produced in clandestine print shops in Los Angeles are quickly transported in bulk for sale across the country.

The case culminated late Wednesday, when agents raided three sites in Atwater Village and seized a portable printing press, 24,000 counterfeit Social Security cards and 50,000 other blank documents, including California driver's licenses, along with inks, solvents, plates and other counterfeiting materials.

INS officials refused to reveal the identities of the two ringleaders, who allegedly sold 10,000 counterfeit "green cards" to undercover INS agents. The arrests, officials said, underscore how bolstered enforcement along the U.S.-Mexico border and at U.S. job sites has resulted in a heightened demand for forged and stolen documents, including Social Security cards, driver's licenses and the green cards, which denote permanent legal residence status.

Adding to the demand in California and other states, officials say, is the expanding requirement that applicants for driver's licenses and other state documents and services show proof that they are in the United States legally.

INS Commissioner Doris Meissner called the bust "a significant step in dismantling a major organized fraudulent document crime ring."

Beyond such enforcement actions, Meissner added, the INS has been redesigning its documents, including the green card, to make them more resistant to forgery.

Despite the expensive efforts to curb use of false documents, many experts are skeptical that the new procedures will stem the burgeoning supply of bogus paperwork--or, indeed, curb the ongoing influx of illegal immigrants. As in the drug trade, new producers quickly emerge to fill the void left by dismantled document rings in a highly competitive industry.

Today, false document vendors operate openly on the streets of Los Angeles County's many immigrant neighborhoods, most notably near MacArthur Park west of downtown, where salesmen brazenly approach motorists offering micas--Spanish slang for immigration documents.

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