Sixteen of the defendants appeared in court for the first time on Wednesday afternoon. Most need interpreters to understand the proceedings because they speak Chinese.
U.S. Attorney Pat Fitzgerald calls the ability to get fake ID's from a ring like this a giant gap in our system.
Authorities say Chicago's Chinatown neighborhood has been well known around the country in some of the Asian community as a place to get identification papers. Investigators say a ring of 19 suspects used doctored Chinese passports to arrange for Illinois drivers licenses and state ID cards.
During a five year period they estimate the state issued nearly 16,000 such documents. And they allegedly had help from the inside. Two secretary of state's office employees are charged with accepting bribes.
"There is always a vulnerability because the driver's license to paraphrase, is golden and people want these, especially immigrants when they come in," said Jim Burns, secretary of state inspector general.
The feds says the scheme dates back at least five years. They've been investigating for at least two years before making 16 arrests on Wednesday morning. Three suspects, including alleged ringleader Jun Shun Zhang, remain at large.
The U.S. attorney is not speculating how those who got the fake i-d's used them. But they paid up to $3,500 for the documents. And investigators say it creates a hole in our national security.
"Whether it ranges from people who might do crimes and hide behind a fake identity or to engage in financial fraud, stealing from credit card companies or engaging in mortgage fraud," said Patrick Fitzgerald, U.S. attorney.
The feds, Chicago police and the secretary of state's investigators were apparently all investigating the ring separately until joining forces two years ago. The secretary of state's office insists this is very different than the operation safe roads investigation that convicted numerous state employees including former Governor Ryan. But the whistle-blower in that case, Tammy Raynor, also first investigated this case.
"I realized we may have criminal activity and at that point our agency sought out assistance," said Raynor.
The judge delayed bond hearings for the suspects until the government could bring in more interpreters.
Meantime the secretary of state's office is planning on recalling the thousands of people who got the questionable licenses to check on them.