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Happenstance finds N.D. dealing with immigrant license plate cheating scheme

FARGO -- Through pure happenstance, North Dakota is now among several states nationwide dealing with a scheme that involves illegal immigrants cheating the system to get driver's licenses in the U.S.

The U.S. Attorney's Office in North Dakota wrapped up one federal case on Friday and has another -- almost identical -- case slated for sentencing in June.

Both cases began with routine traffic stops in eastern North Dakota -- but the scheme itself isn't taking place here.

The drivers were stopped for speeding and found to be transporting a handful of illegal immigrants on a return trip from Washington state to the East Coast.

In Washington, the immigrants had obtained driver's licenses by capitalizing on the state's lax requirements for proving identification.

Washington, Hawaii, New Mexico and Utah are the only states nationwide that don't require proof of legal status or citizenship.

The two cases in North Dakota's federal court system occurred months apart and are unrelated -- yet involve nearly the same criminal activity.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Nick Chase said these incidents reveal a gapping flaw in states' requirements for driver's licenses.

"This case shows that there are people who have found what they perceive to be a weak spot in the system," Chase said during a court hearing Friday. "And, it appears that some level of industry has built up around that perceived weak spot."

The criminal complaint in Fargo's U.S. District Court said Juan Antonio Aparicio-Martinez, 42, was stopped by the highway patrol in December for speeding on Interstate 94 near Casselton.

Authorities quickly discovered he was driving three illegal immigrants back from Seattle after they'd deceptively obtained driver's licenses.

Aparicio-Martinez had charged the passengers a minimum of $1,300 each to cover the travel expenses, but some paid him as much as $2,000.

Aparicio-Martinez was sentenced Friday to 3½ months of time served and was remanded to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, where he'll face deportation.

He is an illegal immigrant himself and was previously deported to Mexico in 1999.

Back in February, another traffic stop on I-94 near Jamestown resulted in the arrest of Jose Cesar Jimenez-Daza.

He'd been returning from Yakima, Wash., with four illegal immigrants traveling for the same purpose of securing driver's licenses.

Jimenez-Daza collected at least $2,900 for transporting his passengers. He recently pleaded guilty and is scheduled to be sentenced on June 27.

He faces a maximum sentence of up to 10 years in federal prison and a fine of up to $250,000 on the charge of transporting an illegal immigrant.

It's simply coincidence that the cases of Aparicio-Martinez and Jimenez-Daza came to be in North Dakota's federal court -- but Chase said the crimes shouldn't be ignored.

"The District of North Dakota really is just a pass-through," Chase said during Friday's hearing. "They weren't exploiting the identification system of this state, but nonetheless, it's still part of a problem."

Other states are dealing with it, too -- whether directly through holes in their own bureaucracy or indirectly through prosecution elsewhere.

Like Washington, New Mexico has been a target for illegal immigrants seeking driver's licenses.

Last month, federal prosecutors there indicted another four illegal immigrants in what was the sixth case New Mexico authorities had seen in eight months.

According to the National Immigration Law Center, as of April 2009, only South Dakota required a Social Security number to obtain a driver's license.

The other 49 states and the District of Columbia had exceptions to the rule, such as by allowing other forms of ID.

Defense attorney Chris Lancaster said Aparicio-Martinez only drove his passengers to make money for himself and argued that he's not associated with any broad scheme or conspiracy that might exist.

Aparicio-Martinez's wife died recently from cancer and left behind a sizeable debt. A desire to repay that debt was a factor in his involvement in the crime, Lancaster said.

Daum reports for Forum Communications Co., which owns the Herald.