Jim Ragsdale, Pioneer Press (St. Paul), Jan. 7, 2006
AUSTIN, Minn. — In Minnesota towns where hogs and turkeys meet their ends at the hands of workers from foreign lands, local officials often find themselves asking newcomers a simple question.
Who are you?
A worker with questionable immigration status may be carrying equally questionable identification. In Austin, where immigrants are lured by pork processing jobs, Mower County Attorney Patrick Flanagan has seen enough bad-ID cases to worry about a sizable “ghost” population of misidentified residents.
“If you’re a ghost, how can we help you? How can anyone help you?” he asked.
Imagine a small, rural community where people are used to knowing one another and where an unknown number of immigrants live and work under dubious names. Police agencies, courts, schools, health clinics and banks — all could be sitting on a shifting foundation.
In Worthington, another town transformed by immigrant workers, Sgt. Kevin Flynn is used to being told the name on a driver’s license is just a “work name” — not the name the motorist was born with, but the one that gets him a paycheck.
In Willmar, home of turkey processor Jennie-O, Police Chief James Kulset hears from out-of-state callers who find that they owe taxes for wages in Willmar — a place many have never visited or even have heard of.
“Of course, someone has purchased that individual’s identity and Social Security information,” Kulset said.
While Gov. Tim Pawlenty and his foes wrestle over the politically potent issue of illegal immigration, officials on the front lines say the question of immigrant identification is real. Some immigrant workers — no one knows how many — have acquired false papers in hopes of opening doors to employment, often because they have entered the country illegally.
There was the man who came to claim his impounded car from the Austin Police Department, only to be arrested for a felony warrant from California. When he was told he would be extradited, he said the name on his Minnesota driver’s license was an identity he purchased.
“He did this so he could get work in the United States because he is in fact an illegal alien,” stated the criminal complaint charging him with giving police a false name.
More common was the case of “Romeo Gonzalez,” a person living in Irving, Texas, who called local police when the IRS told him he had not reported earnings from Austin, Minn. — 912 miles to the north. Police in Austin arrested a local man, who said his real name was Jose Silva, and charged him with fraud and forgery.
During an after-midnight traffic stop in Austin, a police officer arrested a man on suspicion of drunken driving. Before he was even jailed, the man had given the officer four identities, the last of which showed that he had been referred to immigration officials for deportation as an illegal immigrant two years earlier.
Austin Police Capt. Curt Rude said statistics are hard to come by, but stories of strange identity transactions aren’t.
“I confronted one gentleman — I said the reason you’re being held is you have a stolen ID,” Rude said. “He said, ‘I paid $100 for this — it’s not stolen.’”