My name is Wes Enzinna. That’s what my press pass, my license, and my social security card says.But by the end of the day today—if all goes well—I could be anyone I want.

I could also end up like Enrique Mejorada-Cordova, Jorge Gil-Moreno, or Martinez Donovan—all people who have been robbed or arrested or beaten recently trying to do exactly what I’m trying to do.

My goal: to buy a counterfeit ID.Specifically, a California State Driver’s License or a Resident Alien card.

For the thousands of undocumented immigrants in San Francisco, these cards are gateways to such quotidian necessities of life in America as finding a job, signing a lease, opening a bank account, or getting the lights or water turned on in their apartments.

In fact, some IDs are so well-made the cops can’t tell they’re fake—at least not in the dark of a nighttime traffic stop or in the chaotic aftermath of a street altercation, according to one police officer.

And today in San Francisco, ID sales are up, according to police and immigration experts.The cause: increased immigration enforcement, including recent ICE raids, are making it harder for undocumented immigrants to get by without identification.

It’s not difficult to find a counterfeit ID.Just walk down Mission Street, past the two-dollar t-shirts at Thrift Town and the smoky smell of streetside tacos at 18th.Past the corner at 19th and Mission, where just a few weeks ago a posse of ID peddlers and MS-13 gang members got into a gun fight, leaving at least one person dead via shotgun blast to the face.

If there’s no one selling on this corner, keep walking.Before long, you’re sure to hear the word “mica” hissed out from an alley or darkened doorway.

Today, Diego is the man behind the hiss.

He’s standing in the shadow of a stoop.He steps out of the dark.He wears big, black wraparound shades; impossibly baggy Ghetto Boyz jeans; an enormous baby blue button-up t-shirt; he looks, perhaps, like he set out from Tijuana for a gig as an extra in an MC Hammer video but got lost and ended up in San Francisco.

“What you need, amigo?” he says in Spanish.“Driver’s license, passport, green card, mica, marriage license, birth certificate, social security card?”

For $130, he’ll sell me a mica—a Resident Alien card—and for an extra $40 I can get a social security card.For $350 I can get a driver’s license, green card and social security card—about $300 less than the police told me was the going rate.

I decide on a mica, because I’ve only got $150 in my pocket.

“Let’s take a walk,” says Diego.“Follow me.”

*****

It’s a trip many immigrants are taking these days, according to Evelyn Sanchez, advocacy coordinator for the Bay Area Immigrants’ Rights Coalition.The reasons, she says, are several.Most importantly, over the last couple years immigration enforcement has increased nationwide.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement has two teams in San Francisco and during September embarked on the biggest surge in raids in recent time, according to ICE officials.

Despite the city’s status since 1989 as a Sanctuary City—which bars city employees from helping federal immigration agents with investigations or arrests—in recent months immigrants have felt the effects of a crackdown. The September raidyielded 1,157 arrests statewide, including 436 in northern California.Other efforts have targeted employers, such as raids in May 2008 of a string of restaurants in San Francisco.

One result is that many employers more strictly monitor the immigration status of their employees, demanding IDs and social security cards, according to Sanchez.

She says that some San Francisco Latinos have also complained recently about being asked for ID by librarians, by Pacific Gas & Electric Co. employees, and by other service providers—a practice that is forbidden according to the rules set by the Sanctuary City Ordinance.

All this has had a significant impact on the psyches of Latinos city- and nationwide.Almost two-thirds of all U.S. Latino immigrants say their situation has worsened over the past year, according to the 2008 National Survey of Latinos, a national study conducted by the Pew Hispanic Center, an independent research organization.

One in seven say they have had trouble in the past year finding or keeping a job because they are immigrants, and one in ten report being stopped and asked by authorities about their immigration status.

The result is that more and more hardworking Latinos are briefly entering a criminal underworld as foreign to them before their arrival in America as Prius hybrids and triple frappuchino lattes.People who might have otherwise been able to get by without any sort of U.S. identification no longer feel they can, and are increasingly turning to people like Diego to help get their first ID.

So that’s why I’m here: walking the same streets as many recently-arrived immigrants, not really sure where I’m headed, trying to get my mica.

*****

Diego is leading me south on Mission Street.He gives high fives to people we pass and he chats as we walk.He’s from un pueblito in southern Mexico, the name of which he won’t say; he has another job, at a restaurant; he’s got a wife and two daughters.He’s 32, 33, something like that—he says he doesn’t remember.

We take a left on 21st Street.A left on Capp.Another left on 20th.Then, oddly, we’re back exactly where we started.The very same shadowy doorstep.

“What’s going on?” I ask.

“We’re almost there,” he says, and he tells me to follow him across the street.

We dodge traffic and run across Mission into a professional photo studio. I’m greeted immediately by a big fat white woman with deep-fried blonde hair.She seems to know exactly why I’m here, even though she stares through Diego as if he weren’t standing right there beside me, right beside the framed portraits of lily-white babies and beaming brides and teenage girls at prom.

“Hi there,” she says.“Are we going to take your photo today, honey?”

She takes my arm and sits me down in front of a giant camera.She puts her hand on my cheek to adjust my face.

“You’re gonna want to take off your glasses, honey,” she says.“Smile!”

Afterwards, as my eyes recover from the blast of the flash, I stumble over to Diego.

“You have to pay her, amigo,” he tells me.I give her ten dollars.Then I give Diego twenty, a deposit for my ID.

“What name goes on the ID?” he asks.

“I don’t know,” I say, still disoriented.“Something Latino-sounding.”

Then he leaves.I’m to meet him in two hours, across the street at our original spot.

*****

I’ve got nothing to do for those two hours but worry Diego will make off with my twenty bucks, so I sit on the stoop, reading and smoking cigarettes, waiting, hoping Diego decides the prospect of a full $130 is worth the risk of dealing with a somewhat unusual customer.In fact, I realize, my chances of success rely almost entirely on how much Diego thinks I look like a legitimate ex-convict—because in a distant second to undocumented immigrants, it’s ex-cons who might have trouble finding work using their real names, and who represent the bulk of ID peddlers’ Caucasian customers.

Just then, I get a dubious affirmation of how well I’m dressed the part.A cop comes up to me.

“Hey,” he says.“How’s it going?”

“Fine,” I say.

“You waiting for something out here?”

“I’m reading,” I say and I hold up my book.“See.”

“Let me see your ID,” he says.

I hand him my driver’s license, thankful it’s the real thing.He walks a few steps away and gets on his radio.

A few days earlier, I’d spoken with another cop, Captain Ernie Ferando of the San Francisco Gang Task Force, not as an ex-con, but as a journalist.He explained that there’s a lot of violence associated with the ID trade, mostly between local gangs and posses of ID sellers, who usually work in groups of 15 or 20 people and must pay the gangs a tax to “rent” the street corners where they do their business.In turn, the ID dealers hire their own thugs, “enforcers,” to make sure the gang’s demands don’t get too outrageous.And when they do?You end up with shootouts in the street, like the recent episode at 19th and Mission.

Do the people purchasing IDs ever get caught up in this sort of thing?

They’re not usually shot or killed, says Ferando.But they definitely get robbed, he says, sometimes violently.

“After all,” he says, “it’s like buying drugs.You are doing something illegal.Criminal activity is usually kind of dangerous.”

Earlier that week I’d met one of these buyers, Renaldo, from El Salvador, an undocumented immigrant who lives in the Mission and remembers walking the same streets as me to get his ID.

“I know it’s illegal,” he said, “but I don’t think I’m a criminal.”Renaldo said he works 60-plus hours a week and the entire five years he’s been in the United States he’s sent most of his pay back to his family in El Salvador.“But I got a fake ID,” he said, “so I could open a bank account.I was keeping all my money under my bed.Piles of cash.I was terrified I was going to get robbed.”

In fact, with interest from area banks such as Wells Fargo, Bank of America and Washington Mutual, San Francisco is set to issue new “Municipal IDs” which will be available to anyone residing in San Francisco. While the IDs won’t make any claim to residency status, and thus won’t carry the weight or benefits of Resident Alien cards or drivers licenses, they will allow undocumented immigrants to report crimes more easily, to get discounts on museums and at some city stores, and to open bank accounts.

Supporters of the card, which will be available in early 2009, say it’s mainly a safety measure, designed to protect immigrants against precisely the type of crime feared by Renaldo.In fact, these crimes are so common that the gang members or petty thieves who typically carry them out have given them their own name: SOMs, meaning “Sock on Mexicans.”

However, according to Pilar Schiavo, aide to District 9 Supervisor and sponsor of the Municipal ID program Tom Ammiano, while the municipal IDs might stymie some crimes, they won’t do anything to end the black market trade in illegal IDs.The cards’ uses are largely symbolic, Steven A. Camarota, director of research for the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington, told the New York Times last year when the Municipal ID card was initially approved, because the Municipal IDs won’t allow anyone to work or obtain services who couldn’t otherwise do so.

“There isn’t really one, good, ideal solution,” says Schiavo.

*****

As I’m thinking about all this, the cop comes back over.“Looks clean,” he says.“We’ve been getting complaints from some business owners around here about drugs.Enjoy your afternoon.”

And then my day—all my waiting around, the effort spent playing the part of ex-con, not to mention my 30 dollars—is almost wasted.As the cop is handing me back my ID, I see Diego on the other side of the street, staring at us suspiciously, and then he scowls and disappears quickly up a side street, looking over his shoulder as he flees.

Shit, I think as the cop finally walks off and Diego is probably running off with my deposit.

Convinced the sight of the cop and I talking was enough to scare Diego off, I take out my cell phone to call my editor to ask her what to do now.Without thinking about it, my feet start carrying me to the nearest bar.I’m halfway down the block.At least I’ve got the unspent $120 still in my pocket.

Then, out of nowhere, Diego runs up to me, smiling.

“Where you going, amigo! Where you going?I have your ID!”

He runs up to me and throws his arm around my shoulder.I’m speechless.

“Haha, man, I think you FBI,” he says to me, the first time he’s spoken in English all day.“You have camera in bag?” he jokes, smiling wide and playfully shaking my back pack.

“But then,” he says, “I realize the cop is hassling you!HAHA!”

Then I hand him the cash.In an envelope he hands me my ID.He disappears down an alley.I open it up and there I am: Juan Garcia.

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4 Comments

  1. Excellent story. I like the way you weave the larger issues inside the personal experience. Now with your fake ID you could see where it gets you on the job market and then write it up like Howard Griffin (“Black Like Me”). A couple of concerns: have you now fingered the illegal operation for the cops? And how about following up on the illegal stop that the cop pulled on you – he had no probable cause to check you out? This happens all the time to folks who looked like you in this story. And what’s it like living with the constant threat of having your ID checked?

  2. Very well done, I don’t read a lot on the web but this got my atention. Great work!

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