Locals call it the Mexican Michigan Avenue, and with a quick look down 26th Street, it’s easy to see why. Business is booming in the commercial center of Little Village, which stretches west from the famous stucco archway at Albany Avenue to the Chicago city limits.

Travel agencies, sometimes two to a block, advertise fares to Mexico. Mannequins in store windows model dresses for quinciñera, the traditional debutante party for teenage girls. Mariachi music spills out from one of the dozens of restaurants in sight, pierced by high-pitched squawks from a store that sells live chickens.

But something else is for sale here.

Listen to Liz Hoffman’s audio report – Fake IDs: A forged fact of life in Little Village

Walk up and down the streets of this heavily Latino neighborhood and you’ll see them: men, some fronting as food vendors, others leaning against walls, flashing hand signals to passersby.

They are miqueros, named for the plastic laminate – mica in Spanish – that covers the green cards they sell. Less than $100 buys any one of a dozen or so documents, including social security cards, green cards, driver’s license, state IDs, military IDs and birth certificates. Some are one-size-fits-all, others made to order. A complete set runs between $200 and $300 – a small price, many immigrants say, for the doors these documents can open.

“They’re not just selling a piece of paper; they’re selling a chance at a life here,” said Jorge Mujica, an immigration activist in Chicago. “Without some form of ID, you can’t go anywhere. You’re just treading water.”

With changes to the law after Sept. 11, 2001, documents have increasingly become a gatekeeper to living and working in America. Fearing federal sanctions, employers are more aggressively checking work papers. All but three states now require residents to prove their legal status to get a driver’s license. Organizations from utility companies to universities ask for social security numbers on their forms.SSfinal

What was once a “live-and-let-live” system, as a former assistant commissioner at the then-Immigration and Naturalization Service (now Immigration and Customs Enforcement) put it, has become one of digits and dashes, watermarks and holograms. And for those without, an ever-shrinking spectrum of opportunities.

“We are more serious now than we’ve ever been about separating people who belong here from people who don’t,” said Jan Ting, who was appointed to the INS by President George H. W. Bush in 1990. “To do that, you need a system of documentation.”

Life in the shadows

Teresa doesn’t answer the door of her Little Village apartment anymore. It could be the police – or worse, immigration agents, which her oldest son, a 12-year-old boy with a shy smile, talks about like other children might talk about the Boogeyman.

“It’s an ugly thing, being without papers,” said Teresa, who did not want her last name used due to her immigration status, in Spanish. “Always looking behind you, always being afraid. It’s no life.”

Teresa is not alone. Studies have shown that undocumented immigrants tend to be more withdrawn, less integrated into their communities, and seek social services at significantly lower rates than immigrants with legal status.

“The fear itself is a huge stressor,” said Bernadette Sanchez, an expert in immigrant psychology at DePaul University. “You’re talking about a constant weight and a constant sense of isolation.”

Some advocates and policymakers say this fear drives undocumented immigrants away from civic engagement, from things as simple as parent-teacher meetings, hospital visits and reporting crimes to police. Contact with any government agency becomes seen as a possible occasion for deportation, said Anita Maddali, a staff attorney at the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund.

“At some point, every officer they see starts to look like an ICE agent,” Maddali said. “It’s unfortunate, because it stops many [immigrants] from accessing services.”

On the façade of Centro Romero, a social and legal services agency for immigrants in Rogers Park, is a sign painted onto the brick: No ser humano es ilegal – in English, “no human being is illegal.” The phrase has become almost clichéd, so overused is it by pro-immigrant groups. But it gets at the root of a deeper psychological condition, said Daysi Funes, the center’s executive director.

“If enough people tell you you’re illegal,” Funes said, “you start to believe it.”

How did we get here?

Much of the emphasis on documentation can be traced to 1986, when Congress passed the most sweeping changes to the country’s immigration system since the 1950s.

The reforms extended amnesty – a path to citizenship – for some 2.7 million undocumented immigrants already here, but also cracked down on employers who knowingly hire illegal workers. It introduced the I-9 form, a staple in today’s workplace, which requires employers to acknowledge that they have seen a worker’s authorization documents.

“The idea was that illegal immigrants wouldn’t come if employers wouldn’t hire them,” said Margaret McCormick, a Chicago lawyer and former president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. “It was meant to turn off the spigot.”

But the law required employers to make little more than a good-faith effort, and enforcement was lax through the 1990s, experts agreed. The net effect, Ting said, was a vast middle ground: Documents were suddenly critical to getting a job, but fake ones were almost as valuable as real ones.

“Before [1986], it was nice to have documents, but it didn’t really matter,” Ting said. “But that law created incentives for people to be able to produce something – anything – to show an employer. That’s really what changed things.”

The result was an explosion in black markets nationwide that have only grown more sophisticated and ubiquitous in the decades since. Despite serious penalties – the production, sale or purchase of false documents is a felony under federal law – this industry thrives on the corners of America’s immigrant communities, hidden in plain sight and supported by a never-ending demand.

At the top, it is both cutthroat and lucrative; Julio Leija-Sanchez, the alleged leader of a forging ring that was busted in Little Village in 2007, is awaiting trial on charges that he murdered two competitors to protect his $3-million-per-year business.

On the street, however, it’s simply a way to get by, said Jose Ventura, director of legal services at Centro Romero.

“There’s no way to get a job without those documents, and there’s no legal way to get to those documents without status,” he said. “So they do what they have to do.”

Combating document fakes

The law is catching up to life on 26th Street. In April 2007 and again in September 2008, agents from ICE and the FBI carried out two major raids on counterfeit rings centered there, arresting more than 80 people and seizing printers, scanners, blank ID cards and thousands of dollars in cash.

Operation Paper Tiger, as it was dubbed, eventually charged more than 40 people with document fraud, racketeering and other federal charges. About two dozen have already pleaded guilty, according to court documents and federal prosecutors.

“Criminals and even terrorists can use fraudulent documents to conceal themselves in our society, which poses a major homeland security vulnerability,” Gail Montenegro, spokeswoman for ICE’s Chicago said in a statement. “Counterfeit documents are also used to defraud the government, steal funds from a business, or commit identity theft. Working with our law enforcement partners, ICE will continue to identify and shut down these vulnerabilities that must not go unchallenged.”

These operations are an example of ramped-up enforcement nationwide against counterfeit rings. In 2006, the Department of Homeland Security established document-fraud task forces in 11 cities. Six more, including one in Chicago, were added in 2007. Last year, these units conducted 563 investigations – more than in their first two years combined – and made more than 1,200 arrests. As of March 2008, more than 800 people had been convicted, according to ICE’s annual report and Web site.

“These offenders are literally distributing hundreds of thousands of fake documents, and federal judges take these sentences very seriously,” said Denver Assistant U.S. Attorney Joseph Mackey, who in 2005 prosecuted the Castorena family organization, which was one of the largest document-forging rings in history.

But standing just blocks from the sites of the two 26th Street raids, which residents say both terrified and galvanized Chicago’s immigrant community, Mujica said federal agents are chasing their own tail.

“They can arrest as many people as they want, but the system itself creates this market,” Mujica said. “All this effort, all this money, all this time spent worrying, just for a number. It’s just a little piece of paper.”