Rafael Alberto Lizano spent the best of his 45 years living illegally in the United States.
At first, he worked 20 hours a day as a welder and gas station attendant. Then he started a lucrative business buying and selling cars and computers on eBay. His wife joined him and they had a baby, a U.S. citizen.
Then his luck plummeted. U.S. authorities arrested him in 2005 and deported him to Costa Rica, where he now lives alone and poor.
It’s a common tale with a new twist. Lizano had tapped into an apparently vast international criminal network of immigration authorities, airline personnel and others who sell passport stamps to Ticos to feign legal residence in the United States.
The Immigration Administration last month installed new security measures at the country’s airports and border crossings to bust a business that Director Mario Zamora said likely involves 1,000 people.
The administration is also investigating 22 immigration officials at JuanSantamaríaInternationalAirport who were identified as suspects last year by the U.S. Embassy.
Still, Lizano said, the network remains well known and easy to access.
“The system has worked,” he said. “Everyone in the U.S. knows about it…It’s very simple.”
Ticos enter the United States on a tourist visa and outstay it, Zamora said. Then they buy passport stamps for up to $200 each to prove that they left the country before their visa expired.
Corrupt immigration officials or airline workers travel to the United States to sell the stamps to several hundred Ticos at a time, Zamora said. Ticos also bring home suitcases full of passports, get them stamped, then return to the United States.
In 1999, Lizano applied for a six-month tourist visa and entered the U.S. legally, settling in a farming town in Illinois. His wife and two sons joined him the next year, and they made quick, easy income repairing and selling used cars.
In 2004, Lizano returned to Costa Rica to sell property. Worried he would not be able to re-enter the United States, he bought a stamp from an airline worker that showed he had spent just six months abroad.
When he flew back to the United States the following year, authorities arrested him at the airport. He was one of 387 Costa Ricans deported in 2005, according to press officer Ernestine Fobbs at the Department of Homeland Security. That number jumped to 586 in 2006 before dropping to 427 last year.
Lizano now lives on the OsaPeninsula in southern Costa Rica. He has opened an ice factory and he fishes, but he struggles to make enough money to help support his family, still in Illinois. Unable to enter the United States for 10 years, Lizano wistfully listed the events he has missed in the lives of his children, now 5, 17 and 19.
“I’ve missed three birthdays. I couldn’t go to my son’s graduation. Those things are so important, and it hurts,” he said. “I had to start from zero, and alone.”
The investigation, which opened in June, is moving slowly. Zamora’s office still does not have enough proof to fire the 22 immigration officials, who claim that their stamps were robbed, said immigration press officer Heidy Bonilla. No other suspects have been identified.
In 2006, the U.S. Embassy gave Zamora’s office 300 stamps with special ink that is difficult to copy. But President Oscar Arias’ administration waited until this year to buy the remaining 150 required to fully implement the new system, Zamora said.
Airport and border officials are now using the new stamps, which have each official’s name and code and are kept locked up and monitored.
“The control system now in place allows us to quickly detect if someone is misusing the stamp,” Zamora said.
Lizano doesn’t plan to fool authorities again, he said. Instead, he hopes Illinois Sen. Barack Obama becomes president in 2008 and pushes immigration reform.
“I liked the American way of life,” he said. “I still like it.”