Forgery cases spike in June

Published 10:08 am Thursday, July 9, 2009

The county charged more people with aggravated forgery in June than any previous month in 2009, with a number of those charged being immigrant workers at Quality Pork Processors who used fraudulent documents to gain employment.

Fifteen people were charged with the felony offense in June, and as of July 3, two more charges had been filed this month. That brings the total in 2009 to 48 cases. There were only 42 cases in 2008.

Many of the cases seen recently are similar to those of Narciso Fernando-Alejo, 32, and Adelina Waldo-Cerna, 33.

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Their 505 Ninth St. NW home was searched on July 2, and authorities found a number of fraudulent documents belonging to each person. Fernando-Alejo admitted to detectives that he had used a fraudulent Kentucky ID and Social Security card to gain employment at QPP.

Both face multiple counts of aggravated forgery and are scheduled for court appearances in the next few weeks.

In response to cases like Fernando-Alejo’s, QPP Human Resource Director Dale Wicks said in an e-mailed statement that the company has “cooperated with Law Enforcement.”

“Quality Pork Processors, Inc. uses the tools available to us, including the government’s E-Verify program, which has been used by QPP for many years to authenticate a person’s information regarding authorization to work in the United States,” according to the statement.

The cases have fallen within a broader discussion of immigration, legal and illegal, that has been prominent in Austin recently.

Last month, Samuel Johnson, a member of the National Socialist Movement, held an illegal immigration rally outside the Mower County Law Enforcement Center, decrying illegal immigrants for taking jobs and leading to gang violence.

During that rally, another group protested Johnson’s message, calling for people to consider human rights and denounce Nazism.

On Monday, Johnson again made his feelings known, this time speaking in front of the City Council, saying the number of forgery cases involving immigrants lately was alarming.

“We’re trying to solve this problem,” Johnson said of himself and supporters, “but people get too sick of it.”

Johnson said local officials have not done enough, and said police should be working with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the federal agency responsible for such issues.

Police chief Paul Philipp said his office routinely contacts ICE when they have serious cases.

He also said ICE has assisted with some forgery investigations and searches in Austin.

Philipp added that ICE has taken action in a number of cases in the past, including enforcing deportations.

ICE spokesman Tim Counts said the department is involved with local agencies, including those in Mower County, on a daily basis.

This involvement includes the ICE Agreements of Cooperation in Communities to Enhance Safety and Security (ACCESS), which provides local law enforcement agencies an opportunity to team with ICE to combat local challenges.

He said the department is busy across the country but still doing a good job of enforcing immigration laws.

John Keller, executive director of the Minnesota Immigrant Law Center, said a rise in forgery cases, like those in Austin, are due in part to an increased demand for workers combined with a federal system that often has no pathways for those looking for proper work documentation.

“It’s a perfect storm,” he said.

Keller said he often gets calls from people who want help getting work documents, but says his office regularly has to tell them there is simply nothing that can be done under the current system.

This creates what Keller calls a “bizarre niche” for the buying and selling of IDs for work purposes, where an individual will buy valid IDs but often substitute his or her own photograph.

Though Keller said the E-Verify worker authentication system has its strengths, he thinks the method should not be considered the whole solution.

According to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the agency that administers E-Verify, the system is used by more than 100,000 employers nationwide.

E-Verify utilizes Social Security and Department of Homeland Security records, and about 96.1 percent of all cases run through E-Verify were instantly found to be “employment authorized,” according to a recent study.

The Achilles heel of the system, Keller said, is its inability to detect real documents being used by the wrong person.

Also, Keller said checks that don’t come up with a photo of the potential worker, or come up with old or outdated photos, can make verification difficult.

USCIS formally launched a photo screening tool in September 2007 and matches photos from Employment Authorization Documents or green cards with its database.

Ultimately, Keller said reform is needed to the whole system of immigration.

He said the answer could be some type of earned legalization, where those found to be in the country illegally would face fines but could get in the back of the line for legal immigration.

“The problems that bubble up in a town like Austin are the result of a broken system,” Keller said.