February 24, 2006

US fears Mexico “Laser Visas” being used illegally

By Tim Gaynor

TIJUANA, Mexico (Reuters) - A growing number of high-tech
U.S. visas aimed at boosting security on the Mexico border may
be winding up on the black market for sale or rent, U.S.
officials said on Friday.

At least 11,840 Laser Visas, issued to Mexican citizens for
travel to the United States, were reported lost or stolen in
two major border cities last year, up nearly 15 percent from
2004, they said.

The credit card-sized documents, which include the bearers'
photograph and scanned fingerprints, were introduced in 1998 to
increase security and standardize documents used by Mexicans to
cross the border.

"While many may have been legitimately 'lost,' it seems
probable that quite a few are either 'stolen' or 'reported
stolen' in order to sell them," a U.S. consular official, who
declined to be named, told Reuters.

"There appears to be a healthy market for both buying and
renting laser visas on the border," she added.

Dubbed "micas" in border communities, they allow holders to
cross by land without other supporting documents, and travel up
to 25 miles inside California and Texas for a stay of up to 30

According to figures obtained by Reuters, 8,745 of the
border crossing cards went astray last year in Ciudad Juarez,
south of El Paso, Texas, and 3,095 in Tijuana, opposite San
Diego, California. No figures were available for other cities
along the 2,000-mile (3,200-km) border.

The problem has grown so serious that the U.S. Embassy in
Mexico City changed its issuing policy in November. It now
replaces lost or stolen cards with sticker visas placed in
passports in a bid to stop them from going astray.


U.S. authorities say they have no hard evidence of
organized Mexican trafficking rings overseeing the illicit
trade or using the cards.

But Tijuana police say most of the stray visas are sold by
cash-strapped holders to human traffickers in the gritty
industrial city of 2 million people, on a widely used route for
Mexican immigrants headed for California.

"Most of the cases involve people who need a few hundred
bucks (dollars) who sell their visas and then report them as
stolen," deputy police commander Guillermo Gonzalez told

"One case we investigated involved a man who sold his visa
for $300 because he needed to pay his rent," he said.

Gonzalez said traffickers in the city can have as many as
25 cards at a time. They thumb through them to find a
reasonable match to immigrants, then sell or rent the cards for
up to $5,000 each.

Digital scanners at U.S. ports of entry could reveal the
fraud by cross-matching the bearer with the scanned information
on the card. But Gonzalez said border police wave most crossers

"There are so many people crossing at one time, the
inspectors only have time to glance at the visa," he said. "If
it's a reasonable physical match, the immigrants often just
walk on through."