Passport Smugglers Earn Billions for Their Wares
NEW YORK(IPS) -- The business of smuggling people into North America could not succeed without people like Ben Jones, who spends each night buying and selling U.S. and Canadian passports.Every day, Jones enters his New York office at four in the afternoon and leaves an hour after midnight. Only his desk, a pen, a chair, and a briefcase full of hundred-dollar bills await him."I come to the office and there is always, without fault, a case of money hidden underneath the desk," he said. "I don't know who leaves it there, but it is there the next evening, full of cash."The money, which usually totals $20,000 each night, is used to buy valid U.S. or Canadian passports -- the going purchase price is about $75 -- or a U.S. birth certificate from people desperate for cash. The briefcase also includes an envelope addressed to Jones, containing his own nightly salary -- $1,500."It is like this, night in and night out," said Jones, who, for obvious reasons, did not want to give his real name. Jones knows little about the shadowy but well-organized operation he works for, and he prefers it that way. "I don't know who it is that does it (leaves the cash-stuffed briefcase), and I really don't want to know," he said. "I just do my job and stay out of the way of the big guys."Jones is just one link in the chain of operations that make up a multi-billion-dollar global business of illegal immigration. Smuggling passports to and moving people from developing countries is becoming an increasingly large problem for immigration officials. According to estimates from the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), nearly four million people move illegally every year from poor countries to wealthy nations, with Canada and the United States accepting more than half of the immigrants."Passport fraud is a very serious but under-emphasized crime," said U.S. State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns. "The U.S. passport is the most valuable and sought-after identity document in the world.""What people do not realize is that right now there are tens of thousands of people on the move around the world trying to get into Canada or the United States," said Edward McCabe, an INS agent who deals with alien smuggling.According to a United Nations study, conducted by the International Centre for Migration Policy Development (ICMPD), immigrant smuggling is one of the most lucrative illegal industries. The study estimates that smugglers earned $9.5 billion in 1994 and, as with most such businesses, there is an international division of labor. In North America, people like Ben Jones provide valid U.S. and Canadian passports to be smuggled into developing countries -- most notably India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, and China.In other countries, visas, passports and birth documents are altered to accommodate different photos or names, with the most skillful counterfeiting reportedly being done in the Philippines, Hong Kong, Singapore and India.The high-quality counterfeits are then sold for between $6,000 and $18,000, although the price varies depending on the country of entry. A Canadian passport, for example, has a going rate of about $3,000. Migrant families can pay considerably more, with families often staking their entire fortunes for a chance to enter North America or Europe.Canada has been the hardest hit by illegal immigrants, according to Corporal Fred Bowen of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Of the 320,000 refugees accepted between 1983 and 1995 -- Canada accepts about 70 percent of refugees who seek to enter the country -- 90 percent had arrived in Canada with the aid of contracted smugglers, he estimated.But opportunity to come to North America does not always translate into good jobs. Migrant smuggling has been linked to such exploitative practices as the trafficking of women and children.Many of the women who are smuggled are believed to end up in brothels. For example, The New York Times last April traced the fate of 79 Chinese migrants smuggled into the United States by Chinese gangs, and concluded that many of them are now working as prostitutes."When abused, (passport fraud) can allow for the undetected conduct and continuation of criminal activities on a global basis," Burns said.