[wiaattorneys] Social Security Numbers

  • From: "Pomerantz, Jane C. (GC-LI)" <jpomerantz@xxxxxxxxxxx>
  • To: <Sharlan@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • Date: Tue, 7 Jun 2005 09:59:06 -0400

I thought you might find this article in today's NY Times interesting, in light 
of the problem you and Julie raised at the WIA Attorney Meeting. (I don't have 
an email for Julie so please forward this to her).  JP


Some Immigrants Are Offering Social Security Numbers for Rent
Janet Jarman for The New York Times 
Spurred by the chance to make extra money, Gerardo Luviano lent his Social 
Security number to his brother's friend. "I kept almost all the income tax 
refund," he said.
"I've almost managed to contact somebody to lend my number to," Mr. Luviano 
said. "My brother in California has a friend who has crops and has people that 
need one." 
Mr. Luviano's pending transaction is merely a blip in a shadowy yet vibrant 
underground market. Virtually undetected by American authorities, operating 
below the radar in immigrant communities from coast to coast, a secondary trade 
in identities has emerged straddling both sides of the Mexico-United States 
border. 
"It is seen as a normal thing to do," said Luis Magaña, an immigrant-rights 
activist assisting farm workers in the agriculture-rich San Joaquin Valley of 
California.
The number of people participating in the illegal deals is impossible to 
determine accurately. But it is clearly significant, flourishing despite 
efforts to combat identity fraud.
Hundreds of thousands of immigrants who cross the border from Mexico illegally 
each year need to procure a legal identity that will allow them to work in the 
United States. Many legal immigrants, whether living in the United States or 
back in Mexico, are happy to provide them: as they pad their earnings by 
letting illegal immigrants work under their name and number, they also enhance 
their own unemployment and pension benefits. And sometimes they charge for the 
favor.
Martin Mora, a former migrant to the United States who these days is a local 
politician preparing to run for a seat in the state legislature in next 
October's elections, said that in just one town in the Tlalchapa municipality, 
"of about 1,000 that fixed their papers in the United States there might be 50 
that are here and lending their number." 
Demand for American identities has blossomed in the cracks between the nation's 
increasingly unwelcoming immigration laws and businesses' unremitting demand 
for low-wage labor. 
In 1986, when the Immigration Reform and Control Act started penalizing 
employers who knowingly hired illegal immigrants, most employers started 
requiring immigrants to provide the paperwork - including a Social Security 
number - to prove their eligibility to work. 
The new law did not stop unauthorized immigrant work. An estimated 10 million 
illegal immigrants live in the United States today, up from some 4 million 
before the law went into effect. But it did create a thriving market for fake 
documents. 
These days, most immigrants working unlawfully buy a document combo for $100 to 
$200 that includes a fake green card and fake Social Security card with a 
nine-digit number plucked out of thin air. "They'll make it for you right there 
at the flea market," said David Blanco, an illegal immigrant from Costa Rica 
who works as an auto mechanic in Stockton, Calif.
This process has one big drawback, however. Each year, Social Security receives 
millions of W-2 earning statements with names or numbers that do not match its 
records. Nine million poured in for 2002, many of them just simple mistakes. In 
response the agency sends hundreds of thousands of letters asking employers to 
correct the information. These letters can provoke the firing of the offending 
worker.
Working with a name linked to a number recognized by Social Security - even if 
it is just borrowed or leased - avoids these pitfalls. "It's the safest way," 
said Mario Avalos, a Stockton accountant who every year does tax returns for 
dozens of illegal immigrants. "If you are going to work in a company with 
strict requirements, you know they won't let you in without good papers."
While renting Social Security numbers makes up a small portion of the overall 
use of false papers, those with close ties to the immigrant communities say it 
is increasingly popular. "It used to be that people here offered their number 
for somebody to work it," said Mr. Mora in Tlalchapa. "Now people over there 
are asking people here if they can use their number."
Since legal American residents can lose their green cards if they stay outside 
the country too long, for those who have returned to Mexico it is useful to 
have somebody working under their identity north of the border. 
"There are people who live in Mexico who take $4,000 or $5,000 in unemployment 
in the off season," said Jorge Eguiluz, a labor contractor working in the 
fields around Stockton, Calif. "They just lend the number during the season."
The deals also generate cash in other ways. Most identity lending happens 
within an extended family, or among immigrants from the same hometown. But it 
is still a hard-nosed transaction. Illegal immigrant workers usually earn so 
little they are owed an income tax refund at the end of the year. The illegal 
immigrant "working the number" will usually pay the real owner by sharing the 
tax refund. 
"Sometimes the one who is working doesn't mind giving all the refund, he just 
wants to work," said Fernando Rosales, who runs a shop preparing income taxes 
in the immigrant-rich enclave of Huntington Park, Calif. "But others don't, and 
sometimes they fight over it. We see that all the time. It's the talk of the 
place during income tax time."
Done skillfully, the underground transactions are virtually undetectable. They 
do not ring any bells at the Social Security Administration. Nor do they set 
off alarms at the Internal Revenue Service as long as the person who lends the 
number keeps track of the W-2's and files the proper income tax returns. 
In a written response to questions, the audit office of Social Security's 
inspector general acknowledged that "as long as the name and S.S.N. on an 
incoming wage item (i.e., W-2) matches S.S.A.'s record" the agency will not 
detect any irregularity.
The response noted that the agency had no statistics on the use of Social 
Security numbers by illegal immigrants. It does not even know how many of the 
incorrect earnings reports it receives every year come from immigrants working 
unlawfully, though immigration experts estimate that most do. 
Meanwhile, with the Homeland Security Department focused on terrorism threats, 
it has virtually stopped policing the workplace for run-of-the-mill work 
violations. Immigration and Customs Enforcement arrested only 450 illegal 
immigrants in the workplace in 2003, down from 14,000 in 1998.
"We have seen identity fraud," said John Torres, deputy assistant director for 
investigations. But "I haven't heard of the renting of identities." 
Immigrants on both sides of the transactions are understandably reluctant to 
talk about their participation.
A 49-year-old illegal immigrant from Michoacán who earns $8.16 an hour at a 
waffle factory in Torrance, Calif., said that she had been using a Social 
Security number she borrowed from a friend in Mexico since she crossed 
illegally into the United States 15 years ago. "She hasn't come back in this 
time," the woman said.
There are risks involved in letting one's identity be used by someone else, 
though, as Mr. Luviano, the beekeeping instructor, learned through experience.
Mr. Luviano got his green card by a combination of luck and guile. He says he 
was on a short trip to visit his brother in California when the 1986 
immigration law went into effect and the United States offered amnesty to 
millions of unauthorized workers.
Three million illegal immigrants, 2.3 million of them from Mexico, ultimately 
received residence papers. Mr. Luviano, who qualified when a farmer wrote a 
letter avowing he had worked for months in his fields, was one. Once he had his 
papers, though, he returned to Tlalchapa.
He has entered the United States several times since then, mostly to renew his 
green card. But in the early 1990's, concerned that long absences could put his 
green card at risk and spurred by the chance to make a little extra money, he 
lent his Social Security number to his brother's friend. "I kept almost all the 
income tax refund," Mr. Luviano said. 
Mr. Luviano decided to pull the plug on the arrangement, however, when bills 
for purchases he had not made started arriving in his name at his brother's 
address. "You lend your number in good faith and you can get yourself in 
trouble," he said.
But Mr. Luviano is itching to do it again anyway. He knows that Social Security 
could provide retirement income down the line. And there's always the tax 
refund.
"I haven't profited as much as I could from those documents," he said ruefully.

Jane C. Pomerantz
Deputy Chief Counsel
Department of Labor & Industry
Phone: 717-787-4186
Fax:     717-787-1303

Wisdom is knowing the right road to take.
Integrity is taking it.

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