Federal agents arrested 19 people yesterday in a dramatic afternoon raid on the sidewalk of a busy commercial strip in Adams Morgan and said they will be charged with selling illegal identification documents.
In a similar raid, agents searched an apartment they called a "document mill" in the Hyattsville area of Prince George's County and arrested four men.
The arrests were the latest actions in Operation Card Shark, an effort by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents to combat sales of fake documents in Adams Morgan's notorious open-air market and elsewhere in the Washington area. Immigration agents were joined in the raids by members of the FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Force and several other law enforcement agencies.
Local and federal officers conducted two raids in June on the long-established market in Adams Morgan. Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, fake document sales in Adams Morgan, a center of the District's Latino community, have come under increasing scrutiny.
Yesterday, agents returned to the 1700 block of Columbia Road NW -- the street they have raided in the past -- but focused on the other side of the street. Vendors were openly selling fake driver's licenses, green cards and Social Security cards on the sidewalk in front of a shoe store, an electronics shop and various fast-food restaurants, investigators said.
Document rings operating on Columbia Road have built a large following by providing a fake driver's license or a fake U.S. residency permit for as little as $80 and a phony Social Security card for as little as $20.
As the agents descended on the street about 4 p.m. yesterday, one man ran from them. Agents tackled him two blocks away and arrested him.
"Any time you look at an act of terrorism, people have false IDs," said FBI Supervisory Special Agent John J. Hess. "We're just trying to take these people off the streets to make it that much harder for people to get false IDs."
Hess said people engaged in document fraud unwittingly helped some of the Sept. 11, 2001, hijackers obtain false identification documents in Virginia. "We're trying to harden the national capital region as a potential target," Hess said.
The raid in the Hyattsville area took place in the 5100 block of 54th Avenue, a residential strip near the well-traveled Kenilworth Avenue, authorities said.
Authorities said that since it began in 2002, Operation Card Shark has executed nine search warrants, dismantled three document vending organizations, shut down five "document mills" in the Washington area and seized documents with an estimated value of $450,000. In addition, authorities have made 112 arrests, according to Ernestine Fobbs, a spokeswoman for the immigration agency. Of those arrested, 29 people have been prosecuted and 66 deported, she said.
Still, the trade continues.
"The demand is there," said John Connolly, assistant special agent in charge of the local Immigration and Customs Enforcement field office.
D.C. Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), whose ward includes Adams Morgan, said he drives past vendors openly selling fake documents every day.
"It's totally blatant," Graham said. "In this age of terrorism, it's a national embarrassment, as well as a national threat. They're selling illegal documents two miles from the White House."
The operation in Adams Morgan yesterday included officers from the Secret Service, the Social Security Administration and the D.C. police.
D.C. Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey has assured District residents repeatedly that his officers do not check immigration documents or enforce immigration laws. Several Adams Morgan residents who were at the scene of the arrests complained that D.C. police officers were involved.
"Chief Ramsey said his officers wouldn't be involved in immigration issues," said Teresa Lopez, 53, the owner of a pool hall.
Lucy Ruano, 54, a hotel worker, said: "We have a lot of crime in this neighborhood and on this street -- rapes, robberies and assaults. How come they don't do anything about that and then focus on this?"
Ramsey said it was appropriate for his officers to back up federal agents on raids aimed at the trafficking of illegal immigration documents. He drew a distinction between randomly checking people on the street for fraudulent documents, which he said the department does not do, and investigating trafficking.
Staff writers Mary Beth Sheridan and Del Quentin Wilber contributed to this report.