Illegal Immigrants and Prepaid Cellphones

(Southern California)

Being a legal resident of Southern California, we are surrounded by a large population of illegal immigrants. I've noticed that many of them own prepaid cellphones. If illegal immigration control is such a hot topic of late, then does allowing the purchase of prepaid cellphones just facilitate the act even more so? Is there a measure in which prepaid cellphone carriers can take to control the purchase of prepaid cellphones by illegal immigrants?

Comments for Illegal Immigrants and Prepaid Cellphones

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Feb 04, 2012
Inappropriate Discussion
by: Anonymous

I don't like this comment. People only want to work. Try focusing on important issues. Don't waste your time and our time.

Aug 09, 2010
Illegal Immigration and No Contract Wireless - Part 1
by: PrepaidWirelessGuy

This is definitely an interesting topic. Prepaid wireless is certainly very common/popular amongst demographics who can’t legally obtain contract/postpaid wireless services, which require a social security number, credit history, etc. Prepaid allows you to remain completely anonymous if desired. That said, I personally don’t believe that having access to local wireless services actually leads to the increase in illegal immigration per se.

Illegal immigration, and why people do it, is a very complex issue, or phenomenon if you will. I think it would be fair to conclude that if illegal immigrants were prevented from getting prepaid wireless services, there would be no decrease in the rate of illegal immigration. So while it certainly makes life easier, and avoids people from having to pay high international roaming fees with service from their home country, avoiding access wouldn’t help the immigration problem.

Interestingly, I believe that illegal immigrants residing in California can actually legally get a driver’s license. I recall this debate a few years back. Making it easier for illegal immigrants to get to work (yes, illegal work) seems a bit baffling. I think the debate, or paradox, relates to the positive impact that access to illegal work has on the U.S. economy. Anyway, I don’t want to get into a political debate on this site, but suffice it to say that there are different perspectives on this topic. While I don’t think anyone will debate that prepaid wireless is very popular amongst this demographic, I don’t think restricted access will have any impact to its occurrence.

I should note that there have been discussions for years about new regulations requiring prepaid customers to provide government issued IDs in order to purchase and activate a no contract wireless phone. This, however, is mostly to help with the objective of controlling terrorism, and not illegal immigration. And if illegal immigrants can legally obtain a driver’s license, such regulations wouldn’t address that demographic anyway.

It’s also interesting to note that the prepaid debit card industry is very tightly regulated, more so than prepaid wireless. Prepaid debit card industry regulations require that applicants have a SSN or a valid government issued identification document. The reason why I mention this industry is because it largely services the same demographic, often defined as the unbanked and/or those without credit history. It’s probably fair to conclude that the growth of that industry has been slower than prepaid wireless in part due to this restriction (although the ecosystems for prepaid debit and prepaid wireless are certainly not exactly the same, and aren’t great to make a direct comparison, but interesting nonetheless).

Aug 09, 2010
Illegal Immigration and No Contract Wireless - Part 2
by: PrepaidWirelessGuy

Lastly, just to play devil’s advocate, even if illegal immigrants couldn’t buy prepaid wireless phones and plans, there would always be grey (or black) market distributors who would offer such services. For example, as a legal resident, you could buy 100 prepaid phones (legally). You could activate them and sell them to illegal immigrants. You would require them to provide a cash deposit in case they run off with the phone, and they could either refill the account themselves, or prepay for airtime as they need it.

I would expect that any regulation seeking to prevent illegal immigrants from directly purchasing prepaid wireless services would also make this type of third party distribution illegal as well. And while I personally would never partake in such activities (nor am I inferring that you would either!), having worked in the prepaid wireless industry for a long long time, I can assure you that there are plenty of people who would partake in such a business, and tracking and controlling their behavior would be tremendously difficult and expensive to do.

Of course there are always ways around things, and the fact that it may be difficult doesn’t mean that we wouldn’t/shouldn’t seek to prevent illegal activity regardless of the effort and cost. The real point here, for this particular discussion, is that I don’t believe that the heart of the immigration issue is having access to prepaid wireless service. So, in summary, “yes,” there are ways that access could be restricted, and it may very well happen at some point in the future. And “no,” I don’t think that having access to no contract wireless products and services facilitates the act of illegal immigration, any more than illegal immigrants having access to buy groceries.

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