By: Joe Strupp
A reporter for The Star-Ledger of Newark, N.J. sought to take the paper’s recent coverage of the heated illegal immigration issue a step further, posing recently as an undocumented worker in an effort to show how easy it is to obtain fraudulent government documentation, and a job.
Editor Jim Willse said the story was a natural progression for coverage of the illegal immigration issue. “It keeps coming up and you can’t not be aware of the ease with which phony documents are available,” the editor told E&P. “It kept coming up in news stories so we asked ourselves is it really that easy?”
In little more than a few weeks, he succeeded, prompting a first-person account that ran this past Sunday. In the story, Ralph Ortego, a reporter in one of the paper’s suburban bureaus, revealed how he posed as a Spanish-speaking worker with no documentation proving legal status in the U.S. He obtained a temp job within a few hours, and a fake Social Security card and green card in a matter of a few weeks.
“The process demonstrated the ease with which illegal immigrants slip into the workforce of New Jersey and the willingness of the economy to absorb them,” Ortega wrote. “It’s a clandestine operation where tough questions would benefit no one.”
Ortega, a former New York Daily News reporter who joined the Star-Ledger in 2004, said the idea was not to catch these workers and employers in the act of illegal operations, but more to show what the world was like for them. “It made for a better piece,” he told E&P about going undercover. “Finally revealing on one level how immigrants just enter the system and don’t have to worry about watching their backs and employers are happy.”
The reporter began his venture in May, he writes, with a visit to an employment agency in Elizabeth, N.J., an urban city bordering Newark that is known for a large immigrant population from many Spanish-speaking countries. The day he first walked in the office, a staffer suggested he come the next morning for work, which he did.
“I was sent to work eight hours at a L’Or?al warehouse in South Brunswick,” he wrote. “And my lack of papers soon became moot, because, with the help of immigrant coworkers I met there, I was able to buy a bogus Social Security card and green card for $140.”
Ortega went on to describe traveling in a van with several dozen other temps to the warehouse, unpacking items for storage, and being given 15 minutes for lunch. Later, his paycheck for eight and a half hours was $59.50. “After taxes and a $6 deduction for transportation, I was left with $43.44,” he writes.
As for the fake documents, Ortega wrote that he received them from one of the other workers in the van after explaining his need for such documents. After meeting the worker later in a park and handing him $120, he writes that the fraudulent green card and social security card were provided a week later.
The other worker “pulled out a bogus Social Security card that had my surname misspelled as Orteja,” he writes, noting that he had to pay an additional $20 at that time. “‘Sign the front, and put it away,’ he said, showing me the signature on his own fake Social Security card. He then slipped me a fraudulent green card, or resident alien card, based on an older design the federal government is currently phasing out.”
“It is what we do for each other,” he quoted the man as saying, noting that he was not involved in manufacturing the cards, or profiting from their sale. “I am not into that,” the man told him.
Neither Willse nor Ortega expected any fallout from investigators seeking to find any of the illegal workers or their employers, adding that no inquiries had been made as of Monday morning. “I would be surprised,” the editor said. “I don’t think It is that big a deal for a lot of them.”
Ortega, who says he never cashed his paycheck from the warehouse work, but still has the documents, also did not believe any negative fallout would occur. “I don’t think I did anything illegal,” he said. “I gave only the amount of information that they asked of me.”