Where Do Alien Fraudulent Card-Users Fit into the Big Picture?

By David North on July 11, 2010

There are four basic ways of becoming an illegal alien in the US, and perhaps the government is focusing too much attention on the least of these flows. The four routes are:

1) You can sneak across a border without being noticed, or, in government words "enter without inspection." You are then an EWI.

2) You can enter legally at a port of entry, using your own name, on a valid visa, and subsequently decide to violate its terms, typically by staying longer than you should, or working when you should not. That makes you a visa abuser.

3) You can enter through a port of entry, carrying a legally issued document that was issued to you, knowing that you plan to misuse it (such as working while holding a border-crossing card). Or you can make a false claim to U.S. citizenship. Either of those activities makes you a fraudulent entrant. (Sometimes it is difficult to sort out who is in group two as opposed to who is in group three.)

4) Or you can get through a port of entry with a counterfeit document, or an illicitly altered one, or as an impostor (i.e., carrying a card that belongs to someone else). That makes you a fraudulent card-user.

These four groupings are listed above in the descending order of their presumed population size. A 55-60 percent majority of the illegal alien population is generally thought to consist of people in group one, and the vast majority of the rest are in group two.

The relative sizes of the biggest and the smallest of these groups can be sensed from government statistics on capturing would-be entrants in the first and the fourth categories. For example, in 2008 the Border Patrol picked up 792,000 EWIs, according to "Immigration Enforcement Actions: 2008" a report by the Office of Immigration Statistics.

On the other hand, the recent GAO report that called this matter to my attention showed a total of 13,530 fraudulent card-users were detected by port of entry inspectors during FY 2009. That's a 59-1 ratio of EWIs to fraudulent card-users.

The report carried a title in GAO's usual wall-to-wall style: "Border Security: Improvements in the Department of State's Development Process Could Increase the Security of Passport Cards and Border Crossing Cards." The report number is GAO-10-589; it was published last month.

The report, as most Government Accountability Office documents are, is at least mildly useful, is written dutifully, and has a narrow focus. For example, you would never know from reading it that the population of interest was only the tiniest sliver of America's illegal alien population.

The writers (these are always group efforts) reported about the new technologies employed in manufacturing the Border Crossing Cards (issued to Mexican Nationals who want to cross the border to shop, but who are not allowed to work), as well as in the new Passport Cards, designed to be a credit card-size alternative to the traditional book-style passport. Both documents use a lot of up-to-date security features, as you might imagine.

The authors chided the State Department at some length for essentially cutting short the field trial part of the document development process, and complained (justifiably) that the Department of Homeland Security did not bother sending samples ("exemplars" in the words of GAO) to northern ports of entry before people started showing up at those land crossing-points carrying the new cards. They also faulted the training provided to the inspectors by DHS.

They make the valid points that the new cards are not stand-alone preventers of fraudulent entrants; that the inspectors need to know how to make use of the built-in security elements, and the inspectors must have enough time to do these things – an excellent point.

I am pleased that we have started using these new cards, and that within eight years all the old Border Crossing Cards will be replaced by the new ones. Yes, inspector training is needed, and so are those mechanical card readers that are being installed in the ports of entry.

My basic point is that our government – and this country, generally – is all too eager to believe that new mechanical tools (or toys for adult males, as my wife sees it) can solve all problems. And because these tools are sexy, we devote an undue amount of time and money to them while ignoring less glamorous approaches to the same problems. Further, in this instance, because of these factors, we often tend to lose track of the fact that the overwhelming majority of the illegal alien population cannot be headed off with new and better cards.

The new report also reminded me of a study I designed for the immigration service back in 1976 that attacked the same problem. INS had a new commissioner then, Gen. Leonard Chapman, and the then-fledgling in-house INS think tank was led by Ed Scott, a protégé of the crusading Attorney General Elliott Richardson. At the time I was just about the only consultant in town working on illegal alien issues and I was invited to design a research program for the agency. One part of it, perhaps the best part, dealt with the problem of fraudulent entrants.

We started with the notion that INS would conduct a massive survey of people coming through the ports of entry, both along the Mexican border and at some of the larger airports. INS was willing to assign two teams of four volunteer inspectors each to work for months on the project. The objectives: 1) to see how many more fraudulent entrants would be detected if the inspectors did not have time pressures, and 2) to see what kinds of illicit activity they found in the process.

At first we (like GAO decades later) were fixated on fraudulent documents; we soon learned from early field trips to the border that while bad documents were sometimes a problem, what was much more of a challenge was the pattern of aliens lying to the U.S. government about who they were and what they were up to. So we re-designed the study to look at both group three applicants for admission (as defined above) and well as group four, the fraudulent card-users.

I remain impressed at the resources that INS was willing to devote to the study both in terms of people and in executive support. The study disrupted a lot of existing arrangements.

The eight inspectors traveled all over the country and, using random sampling techniques, inspected nearly a quarter of a million travelers, both citizens and aliens. Free of time pressures (and probably somewhat hyped by the assignment), they identified 12 to14 times as many male fide applicants as one would expect from reading INS workload statistics.

In other words, if you really want to cut down on illegal entrants through the ports, you need to hire a whole bunch of additional inspectors.

The eight inspectors found more problems at the border-crossing points (709) than in the airports (184); a small majority of the male fide entrants at the border were women, whereas men were (and are) much more likely than women to be picked up as EWIs.

Of the abuses identified at the border, the pattern went like this:

345 misuse of Border Crossing Cards, usually by an admission of illegal work.
166 imposters, mostly using BCCs.
123 fraudulent claims to citizenship status, many verbal. U.S. citizens now need documents.
55 altered documents, mostly at the western end of the border.
20 counterfeits, again, mostly at the western end of the border, near Tijuana.

The recent GAO report also reported more imposters identified nation-wide (12,531) during 2009 than counterfeit/altered documents (999). It did not measure the other two kinds of fraud.

In the old INS study fully two-thirds of the cases that were broken were such that even the fanciest document would be of no help.

While there may be a copy of the 1976 "Fraudulent Entrants Study" in the INS archives, I doubt it. If someone would like to see it, CIS will copy the one I have; contact me at [email protected].