Mohammed's asylum case was already a long shot. In court for the fourth time in as many months, I used the time waiting for his case to come up to once again review the difficulties we faced.
"It's alright," he said to me just as his case was called. "It wouldn't be the first time I was ordered deported."
"What?" I exclaimed. As his immigration lawyer, this was the worst news I could hear.
Mohammed was about 40, had a wispy beard, and as long as I had known him had worn the knee length oxford-like shirt popular with some Bangladeshi men. In one of the most impenetrable Bangladeshi accents I had ever heard, he told me he had come to the U.S. on a student visa and graduated from a high school in Westchester County, New York, back in 1986. He decided to stay. He was ordered deported long after his student visa elapsed.
Instead of leaving, Mohammed changed his identity. I pictured a 24-year old Bangladeshi pogo-ing to Girls Just Wanna Have Fun at a senior prom somewhere in a leafy Manhattan suburb. The thought amused me until I was confronted with the difficulty of simultaneously meeting my ethical duty to avoid a fraud upon the court and withdraw as Mohammed's counsel, while not telegraphing to my adversary that there was something deeply wrong with Mohammed's asylum case.
Immigration cases built on fraudulent identities are now rampant. An industry has developed to meet the need of illegal immigrants, particularly in the United States and the United Kingdom. In March of this year, authorities in Britain arrested a Nigerian immigrant couple, Bais and Wuraola Sulaiman, for producing what must be some kind of record for forged documents. When their home was raided, police found 13,000 forged birth certificates, driver's licenses, electrical and gas bills, and insurance cards.
The stateside industry is just as big, and perhaps more pernicious. Earlier this month, Mohamad El Atriss of Elizabeth, N.J., fled the U.S. just as police were closing in on him for selling fraudulent documents to two of the hijackers who flew planes into the Pentagon and World Trade Center last September.
"Forged identities have always been and unfortunately, will probably always be a factor in immigration to this country," says Kevin Jones, an immigration lawyer whose practice is located just blocks from the former site of the World Trade Center. "Just last week, I had an initial meeting with a man who had a very convincing, forged Columbian passport with a real U.S. visa stamp in it. The passport was either good enough to fool our border controls, or someone in the consulate in Columbia is on the take. Either possibility is pretty disturbing."
Identification documents are necessary in the modern world mainly because we deal with people each day whom we do not know. They are a substitute for a relationship of trust -- trust that the person you are dealing with is who he says he is. That relationship has now been reduced, in many cases, to a piece of laminated paper or plastic, and with a new life in the U.S. at stake, it is relationship that is ripe for abuse.
Illegal immigrants, and the people who procure their false documents, exploit the patchwork of state laws that define what identification cards look like. A New Jersey driver's license is a yellow piece of paper without a hologram, magnetic strip or even a photo of the person it states is the licensed driver. If there is such a thing as a forger's starter document, the New Jersey state driver's license is it. That may be why more than one of the September 11 hijackers held one. A social security card, the closest thing we have to a national identification card, is nothing more than a heavy piece of paper, printed in one color, with a watermark and a number typed in a common ink. As a matter of practice, it serves as the basis for driver's licenses, and when coupled with a birth certificate, can serve as the basis for a passport.
Last fall, talk of a national identification card was met with almost unanimous derision. For most critics, the idea of a national identification card was just a little too Orwellian for the America. But a standardized national I.D. could go a long way to combating the easily abused state laws that allow forgery to thrive. Immigrants from countries like Bulgaria, where citizens must carry their national identification with them, know that the U.S. does not have a cohesive identification system. Many come here knowing they can exploit the system.
"I'm as leery as the next guy of a national I.D. card, but it would almost immediately solve the problem of state identification standards that haven't changed since driver's licenses were first legislated," says Jones. "It would also help if we had better trained, or more honest, consular personnel."
False identification documents do more than allow illegal immigrants to mount a new immigration case under an assumed identity if they've been ordered deported in the past. They allow illegal immigrants to slide past local authorities in the thousands of encounters we all have with them: at license and registration checks near toll plazas and DWI checks, while opening a bank account, while boarding a plane. An unforgable national identification card would at least give local authorities a legitimate basis for further inquiry if a person they came in contact with lacked such identification.
Mohammed made a hasty departure after I withdrew as his counsel. Quite some time later, I spotted him on the street. I can only assume he was able to convince another lawyer that his asylum case was legitimate--and probably learned from his experience with me to keep his past to himself. Of course, I can only speculate. I didn't get the chance to ask. When Mohammed saw me, he took off swiftly out of sight.
Matt Hayes began practicing immigration law shortly after graduating from Pace University School of Law in 1994. He founded his own New York City firm in 1997, specializing in immigration law and representing new immigrants in civil and criminal matters. He recently left the practice for the "more normal life" of insurance defense. He lives in Bergen County, N.J.