Jose... You're Next!
Hazelton, Pennsylvania, made news this month for being one of the country's toughest little towns on illegal immigration. The city of 23,000 passed an ordinance July 13 that denies licenses to companies that employ illegal immigrants and fines landlords who rent apartments to them.
That should make a woman named Tiffany happy. She's a Hazelton resident who asked that her last name not be used for this article, but recently, she tells New Times, she was angry because she suspected a Hazelton bakery of employing hundreds of illegals.
She tried to report the bakery to the U.S. government, making calls and checking the websites of various agencies. When it appeared that her complaints were falling on deaf ears, she says it became obvious she had only one place to turn.
To a man named David Caulkett, who works out of a condominium in Pompano Beach.
For the past two years, Caulkett has operated a website he calls reportillegals.com. He encourages people around the country who are fed up with the government's immigration policies to send him reports about people they suspect of being in the country illegally. For a fee of $10, he acts as a middleman, polishing those complaints and forwarding them to various government agencies while keeping the original tipster anonymous.
Caulkett says Tiffany's allegations against the Hazelton bakery sounded credible. Her ex-husband had worked at the bakery, and she claimed to have detailed knowledge of what was happening there. So Caulkett used his strongest language as he wrote to agents at the Philadelphia office of Immigration and Custom Enforcement (ICE).
The complaint named six people, including a family of four, and accused the bakery of employing children: "Many Americans have been fired to be replaced with illegals for half the price. The average rate of pay is $5 an hour or less... A few have been beaten for threatening to talk."
Caulkett spell-checked Tiffany's submission for errors, highlighted important passages referring to specific crimes, attached a cover sheet, and faxed it to ICE's Philadelphia office, keeping Tiffany's identity secret.
The next day, Tiffany got what she had wanted for months: acknowledgment. Even though it was only from Caulkett, and not from immigration authorities, she felt as though someone was listening.
"I got confirmation as soon as I sent the report," she says. "He sent me an e-mail the next day."
That e-mail contained Caulkett's standard disclaimer: "We can not guarantee that the report will be acted upon nor provide any status reports. Let's hope our government will enforce the law."
It's a modest guarantee of success. But still, to the thousands of people who have visited the site and the many who have sent him accusations in the form of descriptions of their co-workers and neighbors some even going so far as to send copies of driver's licenses and other documentation to prove their allegations Caulkett has opened up a new front in the fight to turn back a tide of illegal workers in the United States.
Sitting in the lobby of the local condo association out of which he runs his business, Caulkett pauses for a long moment, searching for the most accurate way to describe the success of his website. Finally, with a sigh, he estimates that in its two years of operation, his faxes and phone calls on behalf of tipsters have been responsible for 12 deportations and have prevented five or six additional illegals from reentering the United States, though he offered no documentation to back up his claim. Since immigration exploded as a national issue in March, his business has boomed. He now receives hundreds of e-mails a day, many of them accompanied by detailed reports of alleged illegal activity.
"I've given people hope, and I've stood up for the rule of law," he says, "and people appreciate that."
The website has received roughly 58,000 unique visitors in the past year. That's not Google-level activity, perhaps, but the site consistently comes up first in searches for "report illegals."
But the online business hasn't resulted in much news coverage locally. After the website's launch in late 2003, it was featured in several articles in both the Spanish and English press, mostly in California. Since then, the website's reputation has grown, and Caulkett has made the rounds of talk radio. He also appeared on Lou Dobbs Tonight as an expert on the subject of fraudulent immigrant marriages.
"The volume of e-mails right after the illegal alien protests started [in March] just skyrocketed," he says. "The whole climate changed after those protests."
Caulkett refuses to divulge the number of clients he has served or reports he has filed but hints that the number is in the hundreds, if not thousands. And at $10 per report, that adds up to a substantial pile of change. But Caulkett insists that it's never been enough for him to live on.
"It's not very lucrative," Caulkett says. "It's not what I want it to be."
At least there's merchandise to help pad the bottom line. His popular "Here Legally" T-shirts, at $18, provide more income (the site describes them as "terrific for the grocery store or the protest line").
"Where there's a problem, there's an opportunity," Caulkett is fond of saying.
Naturally, Caulkett's website has both supporters and detractors. "This is something the government ought to be doing," says Ira Melhman, a spokesman for Freedom for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), a national group that's pushed for tougher immigration laws for decades. "There ought to be a way for ordinary citizens to report incidents of illegal immigration and have them act on it. The reason that you have these sorts of websites is that the government is not doing its job."
Cheryl Little, executive director of the Florida Immigration Advocacy Center in Miami, wonders how Caulkett thinks he has the expertise to judge the allegations sent his way. "How does he know who is documented and who isn't?" Little asks. "Someone might turn in their neighbor just because they don't like them. As a result of that call, they end up being harassed, and their life is turned upside down."
Caulkett dismisses concerns about vengeance out of hand, saying that it's the information, not the motive, that matters. "People will criticize the site because they feel that a person is being vengeful. And there is no doubt that many clients personally know the individuals they report. But there's also a big dose of patriotism. What's important is that, a majority of the time, the data is accurate."
Last year, Manuel González Oropeza, a prominent Mexican lawyer, warned Caulkett that his website was possibly breaking U.S. law.
"His call to report illegals is against antimilitia laws that exist in many states," Oropeza says.
Despite what Caulkett calls "Mexican meddling," he is confident that his business is legal.
The government, after all, has its own tip-gathering service, a hotline based out of Vermont. Caulkett says that he's just like other private agencies that sell help with the government's bureaucracy, such as "green card" processing companies.
This doesn't mean that Caulkett's venture is bulletproof. Bruce Winick, a professor of law at the University of Miami, points out that a person who is erroneously reported to immigration could sue Caulkett for defamation: "If it's a false statement that's injurious to someone's reputation and produces damages, [Caulkett] could be liable civilly."
Even though the website may abide by the letter of the law, many find the spirit of reportillegals.com decidedly unsavory. "Our government didn't anoint him," Little says. "We're very concerned about the tactics. This guy is charging $10, so clearly there's monetary gain in it for him. It's the business part of it that I find a little disturbing. We should not be turning our citizens into vigilantes."
"He's making ten bucks a pop on people's misery," says George Mursuli, Florida director of People for the American Way. "You have no idea what you do to people's lives. Is he really going to fix [immigration]? Report 11 million people? Ten dollars times $11 million, is that what he's thinking?"
Many of the people who visit reportillegals.com and don't like what they see accuse Caulkett of bigotry. Some critics assume he's a far-right racist who wants to target brown- and black-skinned immigrants purely out of spite. There's the man, for example, who contacted Caulkett recently and ended an e-mail with the sarcastic sign-off "White Power!"
In reality, Caulkett is a soft-spoken environmentalist with an MBA from Florida Atlantic University who came to his views on immigration through decades of work with the Florida Sierra Club. Hailing from a family of lifelong Democrats, he recently registered as an Independent, but he voted for Kerry in 2004.
Caulkett is a tall, gray-haired man with meticulous speech and a whiff of something both nautical and nerdy about his slacks, checkered shirts, and the pens in his shirt pockets. (As it turns out, sailing is another of his passions, and he has plans to start another web-based business using it as the main theme.)
Born in Michigan but with most of his family ties to South Florida, Caulkett moved to Florida in the 1970s and began work as a computer programmer and salesman for companies such as Gould Inc. and International Software Corp. He proved to be an excellent programmer and salesman and at one point was the primary debugger of software that ran aircraft cockpit simulators around the world.
After a break to get his MBA at FAU, Caulkett rose quickly through the ranks of the minicomputer industry to occupy enviable jobs selling and fixing computers around the world. He has lived in Sweden and Australia and ran ISC's European division out of Munich, Germany, for four years.
"People call us xenophobes," he says, referring to those who want to send the undocumented home. "That we have a fear of foreigners. I don't think so."
Caulkett enjoyed a luxurious lifestyle bankrolled by booming minicomputer sales in the 1980s, but the rise of the personal computer eventually eroded that market. ISC shuttered its European operation, and Caulkett moved to Savannah, Georgia, as its national sales manager in 1991.
In 1996, Caulkett divorced his wife and returned to Florida, where he struggled to find a place where his out-of-date computer skills would still be useful. He worked in sales positions at dead-end jobs and chased computer opportunities in Colorado and Ohio before returning to Florida in 2003, unemployed, to care for his ailing father.
Caulkett lived off his savings and began renovating his Pompano Beach condo, which he hadn't lived in for 18 years. It was during this lean period that Caulkett became passionate about immigration issues. He doesn't directly blame immigration for rendering his talents worthless in the dot-com boom, but he admits that being unemployed in the 1990s sharpened his feelings about the issue.
"All these companies were going bankrupt, bought-out, being moved offshore. I trained all my life to be really good at computers and fully expected at this point in my life to be making 100 to 150 thousand dollars a year, but it wasn't meant to be."
Caulkett devoted his extra time to environmental activism, a cause he had championed for decades. In the 1980s, he worked with local environmental legend Anne Kolb, a Broward County commissioner, to get the commission to pass a comprehensive land-use plan and helped organize a conservation congress in Belle Glade at which the "Save Our Everglades" campaign was born. A perennial Sierra Club member, he served as chair of the Broward County branch of the club in 1982. In Savannah, he spearheaded several causes, including protecting the eastern diamondback rattlesnake.
In 1996, after moving back to Florida, he found the environment much changed.
"I saw all these junk cars along I-95 and people speaking Spanish," he says. "Junk cars and the lack of progress on the Everglades prompted me to get into this issue."
At the time, the Sierra Club was going through a period of upheaval. The club wrestled over whether part of its mission to protect the environment included advocating for lower immigration numbers. After a protracted battle, the club voted in 1996 and 1998 to remove itself from immigration debates. Caulkett, one of many who felt betrayed by the club's decision, decided to break away.
Caulkett says he became a passionate critic of the Sierra Club after watching Roy Beck, founder of Numbers USA, demonstrate the dangers of immigration with jars full of gumballs. Caulkett became a Roy Beck disciple, pocketing Beck's gumballs as keepsakes and playing a video of Beck's demonstration in a reserved room at the 1998 Sierra Club Florida Executive Committee conference. After the club's vote in 1998, Caulkett quit his post as an officer of the Loxahatchee Sierra Club in protest and withdrew from most club activities.
Joyce Tarnow, a former abortion clinic owner who is also founder of the Pompano Beach-based Floridians for a Sustainable Population, was another Sierra Club member who separated from the club.
"After all the things that happened with abortion clinics, being called xenophobic isn't that bad," says Tarnow, whose clinics and homes were attacked with unsigned threats, spray paint, even gunfire. "Every place around the state is fighting sprawl, and sprawl comes down to people, people coming in... What they aspire to is what you and I have. They want cars, they want Jet Skis, they want television sets, they want everything the American economy can deliver to them."
Together, Tarnow and Caulkett led the small group of Sierra Club members in Florida who broke away. "That action in 1996 was, to me, an abysmal decision," Caulkett says, his face tightening. "Without population stabilization, we will never help the environment."
The next year, Caulkett started his first immigration website: illegalaliens.us.
"I kept seeing the term undocumented immigrant," Caulkett says. "Which is political nonsense. I came up with illegalaliens.us, whose original and current goal is to mock the term undocumented."
The site may have started out as little more than a screed, but Caulkett was surprised by the messages that began to come in.
"People kept saying, 'How do you report illegal aliens?' I kept getting more and more and more requests."
Eventually, in the fall of 2003, he launched reportillegals.com purely, he says, to respond to that demand.
"I started reportillegals because of the market," he says. "This is really a unique market niche. I have developed a for-profit service to deal with illegal immigration by commercializing immigration-enforcement advocacy."
And as for the accusations that he's a racist?
"I report aliens from every continent how can that be racist?" he says. "I am race-neutral. I am not a racist. It's denial, not getting to the root causes of the issue, to call me a racist."
"People who are supporters of illegal immigrants in this country like to race-bait," says Sandra Gunn, a South Florida field director for FAIR. "That's what's so darn frustrating. You want your laws enforced, you want your country protected, and you want a manageable system. That does not make you racist."
Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials refuse to confirm to New Times whether they receive tips from Caulkett's website, though the agency has confirmed as much to other media outlets in the past. Instead, government employees are quick to tout their own tip service, a free hotline based out of Vermont.
"We strongly encourage the public to utilize that because it eliminates any third party," says Gail Montenegro, an ICE public relations officer.
Virginia Kice, an ICE public information officer in California, doubts that sending Caulkett money is effective. "Apparently, this individual is charging for this service. And whether he is or isn't making good on his commitment would be difficult to establish."
But the government has no Internet portal of its own for reporting immigrants, and the Vermont hotline is notorious for turning tipsters away with busy signals. Many of Caulkett's clients come to him after trying the government tipline and giving up in disgust.
"I probably do a better job than people on the 800 line," Caulkett says. "You can't reliably take documents or Social Security numbers over the phone."
Though the hotline receives more tips about 98,000 a year than Caulkett does, the government has no plans to provide an online tip service anytime soon, and Caulkett's business is rapidly growing.
And unlike their bosses, individual field agents have been receptive, according to Caulkett. He showed New Times an e-mail sent to him last year, claiming that it came from an ICE employee (whose identity Caulkett withheld): "I am sending this message as notification that info you provided was forwarded to our [ICE] office, and would also like to commend your efforts in addressing and fighting these issues. As a Legacy US Customs Agent, thrown in to ICE, I am overwhelmed and frustrated at this impossible and uncooperative system of Immigration. Please continue to collect and disseminate info."
Most of the time, though, the answer to Caulkett's faxes is a deafening silence or, worse, a form letter referring him to another agency.
"It's very frustrating when I get these 'it's not my job' responses," Caulkett says. "And I get them all the time."
His clients, meanwhile, supply him with insights into the full spectrum of human misery. "I've had real heartbreaking stories. The terrible situations that I see through the reports that come in," he says, shaking his head. "It's the rotten underbelly of illegal immigration."
Caulkett keeps his clients' identities hidden, but he agreed to seek out those who might be willing to speak to New Times.
Caulkett has a folksy streak that leads him to give nicknames to the most common types of reports he receives. "Green Card Heartache," his name for various forms of marriage fraud, might be the most common.
The story of a Fort Lauderdale man who reported his wife to Caulkett last fall is typical. He married a woman from his hometown in Jamaica in March of 2005, only to discover that she had a boyfriend on the side and had gone through with the wedding for immigration reasons. Their living situation deteriorated, with the woman threatening him physically, he claims. He says she was trying to get him to assault her so she could take advantage of laws that protect battered women who are undocumented aliens.
"She had people telling her, 'What you need to do is get into a fight with him,'" the man tells New Times. "She was trying that, but that didn't work. I know better than that. I don't fight with my woman."
Even as he filed a restraining order against his wife and reported her to the police, he also reported her to Caulkett's website.
"I had a friend who looked up the Internet for me and found the number. I needed her out of my house, and she wouldn't leave. All you got to do is pay. So I gave them all the information: where she hangs out, her name, where she and the guy were hanging out."
By September, after his wife was physically removed from his house by police responding to his claims of battery, the couple divorced. His ex-wife is still in the United States on the work permit procured through her marriage, with no plans to return to Jamaica. (New Times was unable to locate her for comment.)
Although he is angered by all forms of illegal alien scamming, Caulkett becomes particularly animated when he discusses businesses like the bakery in Hazelton, Pennsylvania, reported by Tiffany.
"I've reported probably 20 sizable companies that are allegedly owned by illegal aliens and 100 percent staffed by illegal aliens," he says, adding that this still amazes him.
Another common complaint, Caulkett says, is "neighborhood degradation," when illegal immigrants move into an area, often a dozen or more to a single home.
"They'll have all kinds of cars and trucks out there," Caulkett says. "The local zoning boards are notorious for their claim that those people are probably all related and that's legal. They pass the buck just like all the other agencies. The citizens are seeing their neighborhoods degrade and are very frustrated about it."
Fran Toll, of Dade City, has spent three years battling just such a situation with her next-door neighbor, who she believes runs a safe house for illegal aliens. Crippled with rheumatoid arthritis and fibromyalgia at 55, Toll says she called police more than 50 times. She then contacted every local, state, and federal official she could find an address for with her complaint about her neighbor. She also paid Caulkett to forward complaints but has heard no action from the federal government.
"I told him about the RV, told him about the shed, told him about the washing machine they have outside that spills gray water onto the ground, about the vehicles and the hose, and the litter and the trash that I don't want to see." Toll says her five illegal neighbors are packed into unlivable conditions, leave trash around the neighborhood, wake her up at 5 a.m. when they leave for work, and ruined her Thanksgiving and Christmas with loud parties.
"We have put thousands and thousands of dollars into this property we have here. We are thinking of moving. We're just sick of it."
Toll finally received help from a local politician, who prodded the local code officer to inspect the property. After his visit, Toll says, nothing changed.
One of Caulkett's most compelling claims is that a third of his clients are Latinos, often reporting other Latinos.
That's backed up by several polls, including one by the South Florida Sun-Sentinel and the Florida Times-Union that found that only 2-in-10 Florida Latinos want to allow undocumented immigrants to work legally in the country or to get driver's licenses.
That statistic surprised longtime immigrant advocate Cheryl Little, who, like the rest of the country, assumed that Latinos were mostly pro-immigration.
"I was shocked," she says. "But I suppose it's human nature. You know, our own interests come first. We tend to have less compassion for those who have to go through the same kinds of trials and tribulations. If someone thinks that you're taking their job, then I would imagine that's an incentive to make that call or contact David."
One of his clients, whom Caulkett quotes on the site's "testimonials" page, said that by reporting an illegal alien to reportillegals.com, he was doing his duty as a "good Latino."
"I'm reporting this situation in this place because I'm tired that when American people look at me they think I'm going to take their wallet or purse or maybe they think I am a drug dealer or someone who likes drugs," the unidentified client wrote. "And I'm not. This is the concept that people from this country has from Latinos."
"Thank you so much for this website," another wrote. "You are doing the right job for Americans every where, even the Hispanic community! Gracias."
But it's difficult to confirm Caulkett's estimation that a third of his business comes from Latinos. He arrives at that figure by judging the quality of the English of his tipsters and the circumstances of their report (clients are not asked to identify their ethnicity). Caulkett, for example, assumed that a responder to reportillegals.com was Latino by the all-capitals e-mail he received:
"SHE IS ILLEGAL," the report states. "ALSO SHE IS TRAVEL MAKER TO THE NEIGHBOR THAT HAS BUSINESS SO PLEASE VERIFY THIS WOMAN."
However, despite weeks of requests, not a single Latino client of Caulkett's website agreed to speak with New Times, on or off the record. If so many Latinos are reporting illegal immigrants, why are they so hard to find?
"They're always attacked by various groups," FAIR's Gunn says. "I think that could be part of the reason why there's a little hesitation. I think coming from the perspective of being a legal immigrant, there's probably even more intimidation to speak."
Caulkett agrees. "They're just reluctant particularly those who have filed to report illegals," he says. "People don't want to come out because they might be called an Uncle Tom."
George Mursuli, director of Florida People for the American Way, says he's not convinced that reportillegals.com indicates a hidden movement of vigilantism in American Latinos.
"It's just like the antigay folks have ex-gays. Of course it's a fringe thing."
But Mursuli acknowledges that some Latinos might see a website like reportillegals.com as a solution to an intractable, frightening problem.
"Latinos who have worked hard and have done what they need to do are afraid. Those that have are afraid to help those that aren't. Latinos are also people who pay taxes, who want safe neighborhoods, who want government services they're just like any other group of people who don't want disorder. Because they don't have anybody telling them what the options are, they are looking for a solution."
The dim coolness of Caulkett's condo association clubhouse seems a world away from such fear and disorder until a young woman with coffee-colored skin in jeans and a vivid-blue tank top pushes a cleaning cart into the room. She rests a moment, a heavy ring of keys around her neck. She lingers for about ten minutes, studiously doing nothing as she examines her fingernails. It's impossible to tell whether she is an immigrant or an American, whether she speaks English, or whether she is listening to Caulkett, who is describing the process of reporting an illegal immigrant to ICE. Eventually, she wheels the cart out of the room. If Caulkett notices her or the uncomfortable fact that she could easily be just another name he passes on in a day's work, he makes no sign.
Caulkett sees reportillegals.com as an investment for the long haul.
"I really want to stay in this," he says. "I see the revenues going up. But it's been a long time in getting to where it is, and it's not where it should be."
If, miraculously, the immigration issue is solved, Caulkett is flexible. He owns several other domain names, including Sailing.us and AgeDiscrimination.us, that he plans to develop into other web-based businesses. If, that is, Americans ever lose interest in anonymously reporting illegal aliens to the proper authorities.
Until then, he continues to draw on his savings and support himself with the revenues of his modest online business.
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.
- Black Bear Hunting Could Become Legal in Florida This Summer
Fri., July 17, 6:35 p.m.
Fri., July 17, 8 p.m.
Sat., July 18, 5:35 p.m.
Sun., July 19, 5:05 p.m.
- Activists Plan Candlelight Vigil at Miami Seaquarium Executive's Home
- Fort Lauderdale Tech Company Helps New Mexico with Marijuana Sales