“Your papers, please”

New citizens are targeted with pitch for ID cards that some call a scam

Adnan Hindi tries to sell identity cards to new American citizens.

Adnan Hindi tries to sell identity cards to new American citizens.

Photo By Larry Dalton

New citizens of the United States stream from the Crest Theatre after their naturalization ceremony. As they take their first steps outside as American citizens, they’re greeted by Adnan Hindi, who hands them each an order form, selling citizenship identification cards for $19.95.

Sajida Alif, a new citizen, stops to sign up. When asked why’s she’s filling out the form, she doesn’t have a reason. She turns to Hindi for an answer. “This is optional,” he says. “If anybody asks you who you are, it’s for your own information.”

Alif turns away from the form and shakes her head, as if she finally realizes something.

“Oh,” she says. “It’s a scam.”

Alif, like all the new citizens already has a certificate of citizenship in hand, which she received once she had taken an oath of allegiance to the United States. Her certificate and the duplicate, sent to the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), are her only two official proofs of U.S. citizenship. Hindi’s cards are not official. In fact, officials say they are worthless.

“His identification cards aren’t worth anything,” says Bob Bradley, INS district adjudications manager. “They have nothing to do with the INS.”

For years, Hindi has stood outside the Crest during the INS monthly naturalization ceremonies, selling the identification cards to new citizens, who have been willing to buy them.

“I know they’re not government authorized,” says Gurbax Singh, a new citizen who ordered an ID card from Hindi, “but if any mens asked you your ID, your citizen number, you can show them.”

When faced with the idea that some “mens” can stop the naturalized American citizens and ask, “your papers please,” Singh is immediately ready to buy the citizenship identification card, not realizing this is not the America he lives in.

“Today, when the ceremony ends, they take your green card,” Hindi says, “and then if you have somebody stop you or something, you have no information to show.”

His vision of America, conjuring the image of an Orwellian Big Brother, is the premise for his sales, and though his vision seems far from actuality, his venture has added significance in the context of an ongoing political debate about whether Americans should be required to carry national ID cards.

Americans have long resisted the idea of a national identity card, at least before the September 11 terrorist attacks. Since the terrorists who carried out the attacks had spent months traveling undetected in the United States, attending flight schools, and making purchases, some suggest that the institution of a national identity card might be a remedy.

Proponents of the ID argue its potential effectiveness in deterring and apprehending terrorists, but civil liberties groups oppose national identification cards on the grounds that they would substantially increase police power and facilitate information sharing among government agencies.

Although the renewed calls for a national identity card have sparked a heated debate in the United States, they already exist in much of the world, which perhaps explains the new citizens’ willingness to buy them. Critics of a national identity card have long tried to stigmatize the concept as totalitarian, but many Western democracies, including Denmark, Finland, Belgium, and France, are among the more than 100 nations that presently have some type of identity card.

In many countries that have adopted a national ID system, people who fail to produce their cards on demand are regarded with suspicion, according to a report by Privacy International. In Greece and Argentina, if the police catch someone without a card, they can end up at the police department for identification research.

While the United States is far from creating such stringent ID requirements, the debate continues, and states have begun to enforce stricter identification controls. Florida is making licenses and identity cards issued to non-U.S. citizens expire on the same day that their visas expire instead of issuing them for four to six years. Other states are increasing training to detect forged documents, and there is a new effort to develop a central database of licensed U.S. drivers.

In California, an effort to allow immigrants with temporary work visas to get drivers’ licenses was derailed last year for security concerns related to the September 11 terrorist attacks. Assemblyman Gil Cedillo withdrew Assembly Bill 60 from Governor Gray Davis’ desk shortly after the attacks.

But last week, Cedillo revived the measure, which the Assembly approved and which at press time sat on Davis’ desk awaiting signature. He has 30 days to sign or reject the measure. Cedillo worked for several months to amend the bill around security concerns because of the potential terrorist threat involved in loosening the requirements for drivers’ licenses, especially in combination with the rampant sale of fake IDs.

One such concern is Internet solicitation of orders for international drivers’ licenses. On August 19, U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer asked Attorney General John Ashcroft to investigate the Internet sites and crack down on those who issue false identification documents.

“[The Internet sites’ solicitation] seems to be directed at people who have an interest in breaking and evading the law,” she wrote to Ashcroft.

Boxer’s concern about illegitimate IDs makes Hindi’s sales all the more suspicious, and some citizens have the same distrust of Hindi’s fliers.

“Sometimes these people throw the fliers in my face, but I want to tell them if you don’t have a citizen ID, how you going to prove that you’re a citizen, that you belong here?” Hindi says.

But many don’t see things the way Hindi does. To them, Hindi isn’t posing the political question of what it means to be citizen. Instead, they see him as a guy with no official authority just trying to make a buck off gullible new citizens.

“I don’t want to say fraud, but they’re not real IDs,” says Bill Heberger, manager of the Crest Theatre. “He has no permission to sell those. I can’t do anything when he’s selling them on the sidewalk, but he’s not allowed in here.”

As Hindi passes out his fliers, he comes a little close to the theatre’s entrance. Heberger asks him to step back onto the sidewalk. There’s nothing more Heberger can do as long as Hindi is on public property.

“If they don’t want me here, they could have called the police,” Hindi says.

While Heberger hasn’t called the police, Bradley is thinking about contacting the INS to investigate Hindi’s business.

“I had no idea this was going on,” Bradley says. “But I could certainly turn that over to the investigators.”