NOGALES, Ariz.—The Mexican man was nervous when he walked up clutching another man’s visa. It was an amateur job; his face didn’t match the visa’s photo.
Within two hours, the impostor, Walter Preciado Cordova, 25, would be deported back to Mexico, his intentions vague after he was caught trying to get into the United States with another man’s laser visa.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection inspectors at the ports of entry see such impostors every day: migrants trying to sneak into this country using the very tools meant to protect against illegal entry through the ports—the vaunted U.S. laser visas that are supposed to offer the highest level of security available in the digital age.
To fight that trend, the U.S. State Department is starting a new tracking system Monday to dissuade people from selling off their laser visas—or to at least encourage them to hold on to them more carefully.
The visas are counterfeit-proof and in 2004, Congress appropriated $11 million to install scanners at all U.S. ports to read the data embedded on the cards.
But over the years, smugglers and spotters have noticed that U.S. Customs inspectors don’t always scan the laser visa cards, instead relying on their instincts about border-crossers, to speed up the entry process. Last Wednesday, for example, the biometric scanner at the Nogales port of entry wasn’t working at all.
As a result, the illicit laser visa scam is booming in towns like Nogales, Sonora. Hundreds are reported lost or stolen every year, and hundreds more are seized as impostors try to cross through the ports of entry.
U.S. border officials have tracked thousands of stolen laser visas, some up for sale, available to migrants who want to avoid the desert for prices ranging from $50 to $2,000.
Theft is only one way visas end up on the streets. Border residents also sell their visas and claim them stolen.
It’s a tough accusation to prove, but “we suspect that it happens,” said Benjamin Ousley, the consular section chief for the U.S. Consulate in Nogales, Sonora.
“I believe that a lot of people are victims of crime, too, so if their story holds together, if it’s an accurate and consistent narrative, we’ll allow them another visa,” he added.
The new tracking system comes at a time of when many in the United States are clamoring to close down the U.S.-Mexican border with walls and fences.
Members of Congress have discussed different plans for walling off the border, and newspaper editorials are heavily discussing the issue.
An initiative called “We Need a Fence” promotes placing a high-tech fence along the border, and its organizers hope fence legislation will be introduced soon.
Using fraudulent laser visas is only one way that impostors try to get through the border, notes Jesus Jerez, an official at the downtown Nogales port of entry.
Impostor passports from all over the world, birth certificates, fake Arizona driver’s licenses whose font doesn’t quite match what’s in your wallet—those are also used.
In July 2004, Customs inspectors found a notary public stamp from Cochise County in one person’s luggage.
The stamp is used to notarize letters of permission for parents to allow another adult to pass their child back into the United States, Jerez said.