Apr 19, 2006 | 07:14 GMT

12 mins read

Hidden Risk in the Undocumented Workers Debate

Chief Security Officer, Stratfor
Fred Burton
Chief Security Officer, Stratfor
Mexican agricultural day laborers sign their names to a list before starting work on October 8, 2013 in Holtville, California.
(JOHN MOORE/Getty Images)

There has been plenty of shouting from both sides in the debate over illegal immigration into the United States. To be sure, the issue is an emotional and multifaceted one for American citizens and noncitizens alike; huge public demonstrations have been staged by pro-immigration advocates, while national-security conservatives — fixated on threats from terrorism, gangs and other factors — have called for strict border controls and enforcement of immigration laws.

From a security standpoint, illegal immigration unquestionably poses certain risks to the United States — though in the context of cross-border immigration from Mexico, those from jihadist or terrorist organizations like al Qaeda are far from the top of the list. Which is not to say that the most common arguments put forth by national security advocates are not well-founded; for example, document fraud — which figures prominently in the illegal immigration issue — is a tactic frequently used by jihadists, and even is prescribed in al Qaeda training manuals such as "Military Studies in the Jihad against the Tyrants." The immigration issue also touches on concerns like drugs- and weapons-smuggling, as well as transnational criminal syndicates like Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13).

Beneath all of these politically charged issues, however, lies a more subtle danger posed by criminal aliens, one frequently overlooked or simply glossed over in the debates. It is a quiet threat; the risks to national security are quite small, but criminals mixing in with the tide of other legal and illegal migrants crossing the border can directly threaten the security of private American citizens and corporations in very real ways. There is an important point to be made here: The vast majority of illegal aliens in the United States — whether they cross the border in hopes of becoming American citizens or as temporary economic migrants — are not violent criminals. They have powerful economic incentives to enter the country; many unskilled laborers can earn more in one hour working in the United States than they earn in an entire day in their home country. Moreover, the economies in many countries that contribute to the problem are partly or largely dependent on remittances from both legal and illegal aliens working in the United States — so officials there have few incentives to help control document fraud or discourage emigration. There are an estimated 12 million illegal aliens in the United States, most of whom view the country as a "land of opportunity." Among this multitude are a minority who perceive a land of criminal opportunity as well.

Defining the Risk

The number of criminal aliens in the United States far outweighs the number of people associated with al Qaeda or organized crime groups, such as the Mexican drug cartels or MS-13. It is difficult to quantify the problem precisely, but some statistics from the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) service are useful here: In fiscal 2005, 15,049 fugitive aliens were arrested and 9,100 of those were deported; during the same period, only 267 aliens were arrested in connection with terrorism investigations. Quantifying the criminal alien problem is also made difficult by restrictions placed on many police departments, which preclude any questions about the immigration status of people they arrest.

There are numerous ways that the immigration process can be circumvented or legal documents faked, making it very difficult to ascertain whether a job applicant is an economic migrant — or a criminal, posing as one.

However, a May 2005 report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) — which studied 55,322 criminal aliens (in detention) who had entered the country illegally — is helpful. Among its findings: 97 percent of those in the study population had been arrested more than once; there were more than 459,000 total arrests within the group — an average of eight arrests per person; 81 percent of those in the study were arrested after 1990. Crimes committed by those in the study group included:

  • Drugs — 24 percent
  • Immigration violations — 21 percent
  • Property crimes (such as burglary, larceny, theft and vehicle theft) — 15 percent
  • Violent crimes (murder, robbery, assault and sex crimes) — 12 percent
  • Other offenses (including traffic violations, weapons offenses and fraud) — 28 percent

Given the numbers of people involved, the types of crimes in question, and the kinds of victims such criminals seek out, it is logical to conclude that more Americans are likely to have contact with alien criminals than with suicide jihadists or MS-13 gangsters. The issue is particularly pertinent for employers — whether private citizens hiring help around the house, corporations or government employers. Illegal aliens have been found working at nuclear power plants, military bases, airports and other critical infrastructure, which underscores the dimensions of the issue. The risks posed by criminal aliens can be particularly acute for certain types of companies and those who bring nannies or other kinds of workers into their homes, but the root problem is the same.

For employers, the chief threat in illegal immigration is that it reduces their ability to conduct effective due diligence investigations — one of the most important tools in protective security efforts. To put another face on the issue, consider that it is not uncommon for undocumented aliens — some with criminal histories — to seek employment as gardeners, cooks, maids and nannies at the homes of wealthy people. There often can be steady streams of tradesmen — such as carpenters, masons, painters and electricians — at these estates. Prudent security policies dictate that background traces should be conducted before these service workers are permitted on the property, in order to weed out risks posed by serious criminal offenders.

There are other considerations for employers as well. For one thing, ICE is stepping up its "enforcement" efforts; in fiscal 2005, 127 employers were convicted of knowingly hiring illegal aliens, compared to a mere 46 such convictions the previous year. The emphasis here, of course, is on "knowingly." There are numerous ways that the immigration process can be circumvented or legal documents faked, making it very difficult to ascertain whether a job applicant is an economic migrant — or a criminal, posing as one.

The Legal Immigration Process

Considering the steps that are involved in obtaining legal permission to work or immigrate to the United States, it is not difficult to understand why many try to circumvent the process. Visa and green card applications require reams of information and supporting documents, as well as (in many cases) multiple visits to the consular section of the U.S. embassy in one's home country — where lines can be long. Moreover, applicants normally are required to stay in their home country while their requests are pending.

Upon legal arrival in the United States, the person receives a green card (formally known as an alien registration receipt card, or I-551) or employment authorization forms (I-765) that allow him or her to obtain a Social Security number and other bona fides required by employers. The arduous application process, of course, is designed to help the U.S. government ensure that each applicant has provided a true identity, and (secondly) is not a criminal or a terrorist. To this end, the embassy thoroughly interviews the applicant, authenticates the documentation submitted and checks numerous records with U.S. and host country agencies.

The visa screening system is far from perfect, and there have been some famous slip-ups — as when Islamist militant leader Sheikh Omar Abdul-Rahman received a visa to enter the United States after being placed on a terrorist watch list. But for the most part, the system works as designed in screening out questionable applicants. And, with the attention devoted to loopholes and shoring up other weaknesses following the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and 9/11 attacks, the system used by consular officers to run checks on visa applicants has been expanded and improved during the last several years.

Circumventing the Process

By definition, illegal aliens lack the documentation required by employers, so many resort to document or identity fraud instead. Fraudulent documents vary greatly in quality, depending on price, but they fall into roughly three categories: counterfeit documents, meaning that the entire document is fabricated; genuine documents that are altered; or genuine documents that are fraudulently obtained, either by bribing an official or by using other counterfeit or altered documents.

Maturino Resendiz reportedly used up to 30 different aliases. He also found work as a migrant farm laborer, as a handyman and — somewhat surprisingly — as an algebra tutor.

Most fraudulent documents are of poor quality, and can be easily spotted with a cursory examination. Because of this, poor-quality documents are generally used in cases where employers are not overly concerned about verifying the identity of their employees. That said, there are some very high-quality fakes on the market, which complicates matters for conscientious employers. Recognizing that most employers are not experts on document fraud, ICE and the Social Security Administration operate a service — known as the Basic Pilot Program — to help verify the validity of immigration documents and Social Security cards.

The Basic Pilot Program has had some successes, but it is not well-suited to dealing with identity fraud — which is also common in cases of illegal immigration. Identity fraud can be committed knowingly — as when a relative, criminal or drug addict gives or sells his or her identity documents to another person to use — or by theft, when a person's identity is stolen and used without his or her knowledge. People with criminal histories are more likely than economic immigrants to have or use multiple false identities. However it is committed, identity fraud and document fraud make it difficult to screen criminals out of the job application process — and they complicate investigations after a crime has been committed, since a criminal can simply discard or replace his fraudulent identity.

A Case in Point

A good case study of the criminal alien problem is that of Angel Maturino Resendiz, a serial rapist and killer who illegally entered the United States several times. Resendiz, a Mexican national, is more commonly known by one of his aliases — Rafael Resendez-Ramirez — or as the "Railway Killer," a nickname bestowed by the press because he rode trains across the country and his crime scenes were near the tracks. He raped several women and, between March 1997 and June 1999, murdered at least 11 people — many of them in Texas, but in Florida, Kentucky and Illinois as well. He surrendered on July 13, 1999, and is scheduled for execution next month, pending an appeal.

Maturino Resendiz's record of immigration violations is as long or longer than that of his other crimes. Federal records show that between 1976 and 1999, he was barred entry from the United States once, formally deported three times, and permitted to voluntarily depart from the country on 11 occasions, after being stopped by the U.S. Border Patrol. Six of those apprehensions and voluntary departures occurred between the three murders he committed in the summer of 1997 and his fourth murder, in October 1998. He was again apprehended and allowed to return to Mexico before committing a fifth murder, in December 1998. The pattern was repeated a final time in June 1999 — six months after an arrest warrant had been issued for him on murder charges, and before he killed four more people.

Between 1976 and 1998, Maturino Resendiz had been arrested in Michigan, Mississippi, Florida, Kentucky, Louisiana, New Mexico, Texas and California. In 1980, he was sentenced to 20 years in prison for a brutal assault and burglary in Florida, but was released after five years. He also had federal convictions in Texas for making false representation of U.S. citizenship in 1985 and 1986, and a 1989 federal conviction in Missouri for Social Security fraud. During the time he spent in the United States, Maturino Resendiz reportedly used up to 30 different aliases. He also found work as a migrant farm laborer, as a handyman and — somewhat surprisingly — as an algebra tutor.

Other high-profile criminals also have been illegal aliens; Lee Boyd Malvo (also known as John Lee Malvo), who confessed to a role in the 2002 sniper attacks in Washington, D.C., entered the United States illegally from Jamaica; Abdel Basit (more widely known as Ramzi Yousef) was an illegal alien who came from Pakistan in order to carry out the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. But, as illustrated by the GAO study and other cases, it is far more common for criminal aliens to commit less spectacular crimes; frequently, they are thieves, con artists or sex offenders.

Policy Loopholes

Certainly, the odds of finding a serial killer like Maturino Resendiz are small even among the ranks of alien criminals — statistical odds of such things are no greater than among American society as a whole. However, it is generally much easier to ascertain identities and screen job applications from people who are citizens or legal aliens than those who are undocumented. In fact, it is frequently difficult to even determine what country an illegal alien is from.

Focusing on border crossings by Latin Americans, some aspects of U.S. immigration policy create loopholes. For instance, Cuban citizens who reach the United States cannot be deported back to Cuba, and Salvadorans — who long ago were given "temporary protected status" because of the now-ended war in El Salvador — still receive preferential treatment from the government over immigrants from other countries. Because of these policies, it is not unusual for immigrants to falsely claim that they are Cubans or Salvadorans. This is particularly common in cases of immigration from neighboring countries — meaning that a Dominican, for example, might claim to be a Cuban (or a Puerto Rican, which would mean he was a U.S. citizen) if arrested; Guatemalans and Colombians frequently claim to be Salvadorans.

Obviously, this kind of geographic deception further complicates efforts to conduct thorough background investigations on prospective hires. We have concerned ourselves here with only one aspect of a complex, many-sided issue, even as it relates to the concerns of employers. Traditionally, many companies and private employers have looked the other way when it came to questions of immigration status — since, face it, there are significant financial advantages in hiring illegal aliens. That said, many industries — including agriculture, tourism, manufacturing service companies, catering, restaurants, construction, hotels, landscaping services and others — have a tendency to hire large percentages of illegal aliens, and that pattern can heighten the liabilities or risks to the company, fellow employees or customers. The concerns can vary in cases where private employers hire people to work in their homes, but are no less real.

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