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Screening Devices at LAX : INS Goes High-Tech, Nets Phony Passports

Times Staff Writer

- A Mexican man with a well-worn visitor’s visa in his hand and a Huntington Park security guard uniform and badge in his luggage.

- A Thai man whose passport described him as having brown eyes--and blond hair.

- A Japanese man who “looked like somebody’s grandpa” but turned out to be a highly placed--and garishly tattooed--member of the Yakuza organized crime ring.

In a three-week test of sophisticated new equipment for detecting forged or tampered-with passports and visas at Los Angeles International Airport, the Immigration and Naturalization Service says it caught 282 people from 26 countries. That contrasts with 41 people turned away over the same period last year, when inspectors had to rely on simply “eyeballing” dubious travel documents.

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Getting the Word Out

At an airport press conference Tuesday, the work of the Fraud Intercept Team, its black, fluorescent and ultraviolet lights and its microscope and magnification devices, was unveiled by INS officials--for a reason.

“We’re sending notice out: Persons with wrong visas and wrong intentions are not going to get in through this airport,” said INS Los Angeles District Director Ernest E. Gustafson.

The timing of the three-week test, though, had nothing to do with the wave of terrorism in Europe and the Mideast, said Chris Fowler, assistant regional commissioner. “Certainly we’re keeping in mind the terrorism threat; however, these kinds of initiatives have been in place since before the most recent (episodes).”

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The equipment is already in use in Honolulu and San Francisco, and in places along the U.S.-Mexican border. Properly used, Gustafson said, it should not slow down processing of arriving passengers. Most of the new devices, he said, are used during “secondary” interviews, intensive scrutiny of a particular passenger and his documents after a front-line inspector has found something amiss and pulled the passenger out of line.

Number of Countries

In the three-week test here, most of the 282 caught were from Mexico, El Salvador and the Philippines. Most of them simply chose to return home on the next flight, although some requested an immigration hearing, and others may be prosecuted.

The biggest “catch” was the discovery last month of the Yakuza chief, who “looked like anybody’s grandpa,” INS supervisor Lola Rios said, but who, once caught, was found to be tattooed neck to buttocks with vivid Yakuza symbols. He now awaits prosecution in Los Angeles for making false statements on a passport, Gustafson said.

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Besides a falsely documented interior decorator, a free-lance artist, an electrician and scores of laborers, the INS reaped a bonus of 13 pounds of China white heroin, port director Aris Kellner said, and the discovery of travel documents created by a master forger producing scores of illicit masterpieces.

“We can’t put a name to this individual,” said Kellner, but his work is “very, very good. If we didn’t have the machinery, to the naked eye it’d go undetected.”

Not all of it is that slick. Inspectors just have to laugh at clumsily desperate efforts like a Pakistani passport, whose bearer had ripped out the original glued-in picture and simply taped in its replacement, or the Mexican passport whose new photo bore the supposedly official stamp of the Mexican eagle--shakily drawn by hand in purple ink.

“They’re getting . . . good,” said inspector Sal Malgioglio of the fraud group, “but not that good.”

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