Workers Answer to Multiple Names
By Gabriel Escobar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 30, 1999; Page A1
Third of four articles
GEORGETOWN, Del. – The Delaware State Police trooper understands the name game well. "Is that you?" he asks, comparing the picture identification card from the poultry plant with the person in front of him. Invariably, the first answer is a firm "Yes."
Cpl. Edwin Justiniano keeps asking, knowing a perfect match between the person and the picture is often an imperfect science here. "Is that you?" the trooper, Puerto Rican by way of Brooklyn, N.Y., presses on in Spanish. "Yes," is the answer again. But this time, the delivery is less certain. Doubt has crept in. The declaration comes with a key modification: "Yes, it is, because that is who I am when I am working."
One person, two or more names. The identity crisis is the direct result of two powerful forces at play here: Latino immigrants desperate for work and a poultry industry desperate for workers. Both have fostered a culture of identification fraud and multiple identities on the Delmarva peninsula. A valid name is the passport to a job that pays above minimum wage, the goal of new immigrants who lack proper documentation and have arrived by the thousands in the last decade to work in the chicken plants of Delaware and eastern Maryland and Virginia.
Dual identities have created confusion in this small but growing town, where Guatemalans now account for more than a third of the population of 4,140. In the town and elsewhere in Sussex County, false names have been dutifully reported and recorded in the police station, in the state police barracks, in the county jail, in the court docket, in infectious disease reports and even in maternity wards. Some immigrant female workers using false names have passed on the fraudulent identities to their newborns rather than risk exposure by giving their real names at a hospital.
Although many in the immigrant community see borrowing or paying for a valid identity as a harmless necessity, the practice has profound implications, affecting tax returns, medical care, pensions, even criminal cases. One social worker said criminal charges against an abusive husband were dismissed after the defense effectively argued the wife could not be believed because she had lied about her name. And inside the plants, the practice of borrowing identities means that the poultry industry may unwittingly be hiring teenagers who pass themselves off as adults – as two cases investigated by state troopers revealed.
Interviews with workers and local, state and federal officials suggest the fraud could be extensive, given the large and fluid work force drawn to the 12 processing plants that operate on the peninsula and employ more than 10,000 workers – a third of them Hispanic.
"There is an underground, and there is a market, for establishing identities," said Georgetown's police chief, William S. Topping. "I can't give you a percentage for how many people in Georgetown are in that basket, but they are out there."
Immigration officials in Delaware are investigating to gauge how extensive identity fraud is, but the evidence, at this stage, is enough to cause concern. "There may very well be something serious afoot," said Bill Horn, the supervisory special agent in charge of the Immigration and Naturalization Service office in Dover.
The assumption by the INS is that the practice carries nationwide. One indicator, officials said, is the occasional case involving a worker in Delaware who is cited by the Internal Revenue Service for failing to report income earned in a state the worker had never visited, much less worked in.
Multiple identities are an open secret in Georgetown. There is an active and sometimes lucrative market for valid paperwork, a good name worth as much as $500. People rent out their identities, allowing others to land jobs in competing poultry plants. Relatives borrow identities from one another.
Passing yourself off as someone else often involves a series of maneuvers, all culminating in obtaining identification bearing your picture but someone else's name. There are times, however, when workers simply use the documents of someone else, assuming that a personnel manager cannot tell the difference between Hispanics. "If it looks a little like him, they will take it," said Raymond Tames, Guatemalan immigrant who has worked at several poultry plants since 1994 and is now at Perdue. "They need the workers."
The poultry industry said it diligently abides by all government regulations and actively combats the hiring of undocumented workers. Plants have an open-ended agreement with the INS, allowing agents unannounced access to the facilities and freedom to peruse employee records.
At the same time, the industry notes that it is caught between the policies of two federal agencies: the immigration service and the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, which has successfully investigated allegations that Hispanics are sometimes asked to provide more documentation than required to obtain employment.
Plant managers said government regulations make it impossible to prevent an undocumented worker with seemingly valid documents from ending up on the payroll. But if that happens, the industry said, it is the exception and not the rule.
On the street, where valid identification is constant preoccupation as well as a valuable commodity, the perception is different. "Everyone knows it's happening," said Luis Rodriguez, a Mexican whose family runs the most successful Latino business in town, Joe's Market. "The chicken plants know. They need the workers. If they don't hire those people to do that job, who is going to do it? Americans? You think Americans are going to go in there?. . . . I don't think so."
Not even the significant migration of the last decade has been enough to ease a chronic shortage of workers. "I bet you could take every plant on the shore, give them 100 workers and they could assimilate them," said Charles C. "Chick" Allen III, president of Allen Family Foods Inc., which owns three Delmarva slaughterhouses. "There are products that cannot be made because the work force isn't there."
The shortage of legal workers and high industry turnover – Allen has a core group of workers but a fifth of its workers are in constant flux – are at the root of the identity fraud problem. The repercussions of this shortage of manual labor are felt far beyond Delmarva, not only by the poultry industry but also by many other industries desperate for reliable workers.
It is a predicament labor recruiter Richard Gaona knows well. Try as he might, Gaona is running out of men and women to fill jobs. He is thinking of expanding his call for workers from Mexico, where his ads are beamed by radio to El Salvador, Nicaragua and Guatemala. The green chalkboard inside Gaona's office, in McAllen, Tex., illustrates his plight. The fish farm in Alabama wants him to send 20 workers. The turkey processor in South Dakota, 10. Delmarva chicken? Fifty permanent openings, all at Mountaire Farms.
The responsibility for hiring legal workers rests with the employer, but Gaona is the first and most important check. He has seen Mexicans trying to pass themselves off as Nicaraguans to take advantage of asylum laws. He has seen fake documents that look so authentic they seem better than the real thing.
His livelihood turns on sending workers with proper documentation. If the plant rejects a worker's documents once he arrives, Gaona loses his finder's fee and the money he spent sending the worker north.
Of 10 workers signed for Mountaire this summer, three failed the drug tests Gaona administers and three had suspect documents. Four journeyed north, all Mexicans and all intending to work in poultry for only a few months.
A Legal Tightrope
Fighting identity fraud is, ironically, fraught with peril. The Delmarva poultry industry, which has combated the hiring of illegal immigrants and gets high marks from federal officials, cannot challenge a potential worker who shows up with what appears to be legitimate identification.
The validity of a Social Security card can be established by calling a federal agency – that is one of the principal tasks Gaona does and it is something poultry companies do on their own just to be safe. Still, by law, an employer must accept without question "documents tendered that on their face reasonably appear to be genuine." The identity fraud appears to thrive under this civil rights protection because, with little or even no tinkering, each one appears legitimate on its face, bearing the name and likeness of an applicant. When plants ask too much, they are liable.
Perdue, which is one of the region's largest employers, was cited by the Department of Justice in 1997 for violating the civil rights of a worker who was asked to obtain a new alien registration card because her old one displayed her maiden name. Perdue was fined $2,300 and ordered to pay $2,046 to the worker.
In the same ruling, the company was cited for asking six non-U.S. citizens to produce documents issued by the INS as a condition for employment. As part of the agreement, Perdue agreed that "it will not refuse to honor documentation . . . that on its face reasonably appears to be genuine."
The law has, in effect, created a loophole. Where Justiniano, the Delaware state police officer, can ask the pointed question – "Is this really you?" – the human resources manager at a poultry plant cannot legally do so if the document appears legitimate. "There are certain documents that we are allowed to ask about," said David Tanner, the director of human services for Mountaire, which runs a plant in Selbyville, Del. "If there is no reason for us to doubt them, we are obliged to accept them."
The same legal restriction that prohibits poultry plants from pressing the identity issue may also be encouraging a new kind of fraud: providing documents claiming would-be workers are U.S. citizens, which further limits what an employer can ask.
It is known on the street, for example, that one way to get a job at the plant is by obtaining a birth certificate from Puerto Rico or the Rio Grande Valley in Texas, which has been predominantly Latino for generations. Because Puerto Ricans and Mexican Americans are both Spanish speakers and U.S. citizens, it is ostensibly easy for any Latino to pass as a Puerto Rican or a Mexican, at least on paper.
Identification cards issued by states, a legitimate and popular form of identification for people who do not have driver's licenses, are also increasingly used to commit fraud. Obtaining a state photo ID is not a rigorous process in some jurisdictions. Someone with a state ID and a Social Security card that checks out as valid – both displaying the same name – cannot be challenged by an employer. "There is not going to be much to trip them up," said Horn of the INS.
Horn described the practices involving fraudulent documents in the poultry industry as serious and said the INS is working with several poultry employers. "I think there has been a shift to using U.S. identification and claiming to be citizens of the United States, and that is what we are in the process of investigating," Horn said. "How widespread it is, we do not know."
Horn declined to name the companies, citing the ongoing inquiry. "The employers have been extremely cooperative," Horn said, noting those involved have a potential civil rights issue on their hands. "It is a very ticklish situation for them."
A few years ago, when Perdue bought its Milford, Del., plant, it went through personnel records and dismissed dozens of workers with questionable documents. The industry's current open door policy with the INS is cited as an effective way to counter the hiring of undocumented workers.
Yet, even with that check, plants remain vulnerable – and vulnerable in the extreme when it comes to hiring underage workers. About two years ago, Justiniano, the state police officer, was called to the Delaware Motor Vehicle Division to investigate a case involving a man who applied for a license only to discover one had already been issued in his name.
The man whose application was foiled told Justiniano that he had sold his identity for $500 to an acquaintance who needed a valid document for his 17-year-old son, who wanted to work in a chicken plant. Workers must be 18.
Some time later, the boy used the borrowed identification to secure a driver's license. When the man who had sold his identity applied for a license himself, the tangled history unraveled.
It was a difficult police call. Justiniano told the man who had sold his identity that police could arrest the 17-year-old – who had gone to work for Mountaire – but would also have to arrest him for selling his name. The man did not follow through with his complaint, and the case vanished.
In another case, in February, state police investigating a fatal car accident in Georgetown initially identified one of the two victims as a 19-year-old Colombian woman, based on information provided by her companions at the scene.
State police investigators found three pieces of identification on her: a worker ID card for the Townsends Inc. plant in Millsboro, Del., which listed her as Ludy Janeth Ortiz-Perez; a dental insurance card, with a bogus Social Security number, that listed her as Ludy J. Ortiz; and a state ID card from Arizona that said she was Maria Hernandez.
The victim's father told state police his daughter was born in Guatemala on Sept. 5, 1983. Townsend hired her on Nov. 17, 1998, which would have been two months after she turned 15. An official at Townsends said the company took all reasonable measures to assure itself that Ortiz-Perez was of legal working age. When she applied for work, she submitted a Florida driver's license that showed her to be 18, and filled out that same birth date on her payroll, medical and dental forms, according to documents made available by the company. She also presented what appeared to be a genuine Social Security card.
In the Mountaire example, officials said they could not check the case of the 17-year-old without a name. "Could something like that happen? Without a doubt," said Al Zlotorzynski, the company's longtime human resources manager. "If he came in here with a driver's license with his picture, his name and a date of birth, I have to accept it, if the document is genuine. I can't question nothing."
Inside the plants, some people know the name game and even play along. Workers joke about the multiple identities of some of their colleagues.
Samantha Jones, who has worked at five plants on the Eastern Shore and is now at the Perdue plant in Showell, Md., said people come on the line, leave a short time later and suddenly show up again with a new name. One woman, Jones said, has worked as Sable, Mercedes, Alicia and, finally, Brenda. She has a physical disability, one leg shorter than the other, so her colleagues know it is her.
"Sometimes we'll call her Alicia," Jones said.
"Me Brenda," the woman reminds them.
Al Chavez, an interpreter for the courts and state police, said men keep their multiple identities in their shoes. He has seen men take them out while awaiting questioning. Sometimes it is just one, sometimes as many as five. "Same picture, same person, different names," he said.
Small but telling windows on document fraud open in unexpected places. Savvy community activists, alarmed when they realized pregnant women were passing fraudulent identities to their newborns, now demand women use their real names when they seek medical care. But that has produced another problem.
Poultry plants require women who have been on maternity leave to provide a note from a doctor attesting to the delivery. The rule would expose their fake identities. Perpetuating the dual identity requires yet another fraud: obtaining another false document so they can return to the plant.
Troubles in the health field are not limited to the maternity ward.
Hipolito P. Aguillen, one of three doctors at the Sussex Medical Center in Seaford, has seen the complications of dual identities up close, "with a certain frequency," in his words. A man with tuberculosis is diagnosed under one name, treated and then disappears, only to return later with a different name but the same lingering illness.
"How can we change it?" Aguillen said of the medical records. He has no choice but to do the treatment under a different name, directly affecting an important local, state and national statistic.
The most interesting case he has run into involved a man who had bought a name and used it for two or three years. The original owner eventually asked for it back, leaving the man with no choice but to quit his job in Delaware, buy another identity and find work at another poultry plant.
About three months later, a claim for child support arrived, for the first identity the man had used. The man, now a well-paid mechanic at his second poultry plant, worked many shifts and decided he would avoid legal troubles over his true identity by paying the child support owed under his false name, which may have been as much as $150 a month, Aguillen recalled.
Eventually, a notice arrived to pay alimony, again for the first name he had used. He ignored three notices and was finally ordered to appear in court over the alimony. "He got scared," Aguillen said. If he went to court, the wife in the case would know the man who appeared was not her real husband.
The man abandoned his second identity and decided to start over yet again, in a third chicken plant, this time in Maryland. "I guess the woman is still waiting for the alimony," Aguillen said.
For the state police, the identity situation is so confusing that two years ago they implemented a plan in which every Latino stopped for an infraction who does not have a piece of identification on him has his picture taken and attached to a report. The plan, Justiniano said, is aimed at protecting Latinos because the possibility of someone being charged with a crime committed by another is considerable.
One of the few places where the extent and sophistication of the fraud has repeatedly surfaced is at the state DMV office in Georgetown, where technological advancements and savvy and aggressive managers provide hard leads.
This year, a computer system came online, allowing DMV workers to display a picture of licensed drivers who come in to conduct a transaction. Georgetown police are in the process of installing a similar system, with help from a grant by Perdue. At the DMV, officials said identification fraud is exposed two or three times a week using the online system and followed up with aggressive questioning.
At times, police are notified, but the problem occurs so often that calling the authorities for every instance is impractical. Rather than bring in police, the evidence is seized and ends up in a folder marked "Fraud Cases." "Instead of me wasting time, we keep the paper and you go on your merry way," Murray said. "They don't know any better."
Generally the incidents involve people who apply for a license and discover a valid license in their name has already been issued to another individual. "Will the real John Doe stand up?" is how Neal W. Murray, motor vehicle services supervisor at the Georgetown office, summarizes the predicament.
To uncover fraud, Murray hired a Puerto Rican woman as an examiner and enrolled her in a course to detect false documents. Myrna Von Thenen has become a one-person fraud unit, and in the process, earned the ire of many Hispanics.
The evidence she unearths gives credence to reports circulated among poultry workers that beginning in the mid-1990s, applicants began buying Puerto Rican birth certificates. They were supplied by "coyotes" that specialized not in bringing people across the border – the more traditional role – but in providing false identities.
The shortcoming of that scheme is that there are few genuine Puerto Ricans in this part of Delaware. Von Thenen, as a Puerto Rican, knows this. She also knows that many Guatemalans do not in the least resemble Puerto Ricans – a distinction only Latinos are comfortable making.
"A lot of them come in with Puerto Rican birth certificates, an enormous number," said Von Thenen, who said one person told her buyers pay $600 for them. Unlike poultry plant managers who cannot ask whether a certificate is real, Von Thenen can and has no compunction about doing so.
Once, she asked a man who claimed to be Puerto Rican how he had traveled from the island to Delaware. "By train," the man said before fleeing.
Staff writer Lena H. Sun contributed to this report.
© 1999 The Washington Post Company