Staffer Barbara Jackson has worked at Rosa’s on-and-off for the past 30 years

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Would you get your fingerprints done inside a metal truck? What about snap your passport photo? Submit to a background check?

Untrustworthy as that might sound, thousands of Philadelphians have done just that over the past three decades, ever since Rosa’s opened up shop on 16th and Callowhill.

The silver truck has become something of an institution on the sparse, highway-adjacent stretch of street. It’s been parked there since the early ’90s, and is consistently popular, with a 4.6-star rating on Google. Visit today and you’ll find a steady stream of customers, with or without appointments.

“Some people say, ‘Oh my god, I didn’t know you were legit,” said the truck’s co-owner, 72-year-old Robert Braun. “Other people say, ‘Damn, I’ve been driving by here for 20 years. I saw the sign and I never thought about it.’”

Launched after an international love affair by an immigrant looking to make something of her new life, Rosa Photo and Fingerprinting became a service relied upon by Philadelphians trying to get their green card and become citizens.

Former Sixers center Manute Bol, originally from Sudan, was a client in the early ’90s. At 7′ 7″, the shot-blocking legend had to sit on the floor to get his head in the picture, according to a 1994 Inquirer report.

Once swept up in a law enforcement sting and now reportedly relied upon by the Pennsylvania State Police — with a bit of heartbreak in between — this is the story of Rosa’s.

Rosa Photo on Callowhill Street in Center City Philadelphia Credit: Kimberly Paynter / WHYY

A Dominican lawyer moves to Philly

Robert Braun first met Rosa in court.

Back in the ’80s, Braun was working as the executive director of a Philly adoption agency. The Brooklyn native learned Spanish during his time in the NYC public school system, so his shop ran adoption programs out of Central and South America, too. When there was a mixup in a case he was tangentially involved in, Braun had to fly to the Dominican Republic to sort things out in family court.

Repping the other side on one of those visits was Rosa Ingrid Perez Fernandez, “a young, bright, dynamic lawyer,” as Braun remembers her.

“Rosa won the case, and I won her heart,” said Braun, who landed in Philly for a job at Bryn Mawr in 1974. (Rosa didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment for this story.)

The two fell in love and dated long distance for a few years — not an insurmountable challenge, since Braun regularly traveled back to the Dominican Republic for work. Eventually they went to Elkton, Maryland, to get married. Rosa got her green card and relocated to Philly.

Though Perez Fernandez could practice law in her native country, she wasn’t licensed here. Plus, at the time, she barely spoke English.

One thing she did know well: How daunting the U.S. immigration process could be.

“Rosa and I decided she could have an interesting career while learning English by doing consulting work for the considerable number of people in Philadelphia area who were making applications for immigration benefits,” Braun said.

Perez Fernandez wanted to set up an office near Philly’s old immigration services building — then called the Immigration and Naturalization Service. But she couldn’t find a vacant storefront.

So she bought a truck.

Barbara Jackson takes a pic of Natalia, who got her first photograph at Rosa’s in 2001 for a work visa Credit: Kimberly Paynter / WHYY

A stample in the immigration community

Rosa Photo and Fingerprinting opened in 1992 with the namesake at the helm.

The Grumman Step Van, a model similar to those used by many food trucks, began setting up at 16th and Callowhill with a giant “Rosa Photo” sign on top. Customers enter through the rear, stepping inside a tiny office run off a generator.

Perez Fernandez became known in the immigration community, serving those confused by the process in the building across the street — and their lawyers.

“Rosa’s was a very well-known entity when I started practice,” said attorney Brennan Gian-Grasso, founding partner at a Philly immigration law firm, who said he took clients there often. The prices were fair, it was fast, and, most importantly, he said, they felt comfortable.

“The proximity to the court, that was huge,” Gian-Grasso said. “The convenience, the fact that she spoke Spanish, all that stuff was pretty helpful.”

Immigration attorney Wendy Castor Hess also appreciated the easy location. When a client was missing fingerprints, or their application photo was blurry, she could send them right across the street.

“The case would be delayed if I had to wait to send it in,” said Castor Hess. “But if I said, ‘OK, let’s go out to the truck and get photos,’ an officer would allow us back up.”

Plus, Castor Hess said, she wasn’t sending clients to a police station.

The biz owners recognized the significance of offering a fingerprinting and background check option outside of law enforcement.

“People whose status in America is at risk to begin with, if the wrong thing got written on their fingerprint card or if their information is shared with the wrong people, a client can be compromised,” Braun said.

Rosa’s offers FBI fingerprinting services and background checks Credit: Kimberly Paynter / WHYY

Bouncing back from a fake ID sting

As the truck secured a reliable reputation, there was fissure within its four walls.

Braun and Perez Fernandez had marital troubles, and in the mid-90s they separated. Braun said his ex-wife took a job in city government. The pair still own the business together, in a trust in their 24-year-old daughter’s name.

By the early 2000s, other trucks had gravitated to the same block, offering basically the same immigration services. Rosa’s eventually bought them out — but not before its own run-in with the criminal justice system.

In 2008, Braun and his employees were arrested by Philly police for allegedly selling fake IDs. Their truck was towed, and local competitors on the block rejoiced.

The incident didn’t come as a surprise to one Philly immigration attorney, who asked to remain anonymous. They heard the rumors, and worried that immigrants would be especially vulnerable.

“To show you’re eligible to work in the U.S. … immigrants have no choice but to commit identity theft and get fake documentation,” the lawyer said. “To me it was like they were like flaunting it, committing fraud right in front of the building.”

The charges were ultimately dropped, and the Rosa’s truck returned to the block. Braun called the incident a “sting” that was “not handled in an appropriate fashion.”

Then, in 2011, the immigration offices, now called Citizenship and Immigration Services, moved from 16th and Callowhill to 41st and Powelton.

Braun opted not to move his truck so far from Center City.

Customer Natalia approves her passport photo at Rosa’s Credit: Kimberly Paynter / WHYY

9/11 creates new biz: ‘a more credentialed society’

A pivot was needed anyway, since digital fingerprinting was becoming standard, and most drug stores had started offering instant passport photos.

The truck might not have survived, Braun said. But 9/11 had created a swell of new business.

“In the aftermath … we have become a much more credentialed society,” he said. “So with the passage of years, we realized less of our business came from clients with a connection to immigration, and more and more just plain old people who needed clearances.”

Customers of the truck now include folks who need name changes or FBI background checks, drivers’ license history checks and child abuse clearances. It’s useful in a pinch, because it offers fast, walk-up appointments.

Rosa’s is a subcontractor for Philly’s Rebuild program, doing background checks for new hires, per Parks & Rec spokesperson Maita Soukup. Braun said they’ll often get School District staff who need to renew theirs, and FedEx staff who need clearances to handle federal mail.

Several sources said one reason Rosa’s has stayed in business is because Pennsylvania State Police will refer anyone who calls for fingerprinting to the truck, which spokesperson Ryan Tarkowski wouldn’t confirm.

To deal with pandemic restrictions and ensure safety, Rosa’s has increased the truck’s cleaning in 2020, Braun said. People now wait outside while staff process their materials.

More than a quarter century after it was founded, the truck’s resilience can be inspiring.

“Here was a woman who was an immigrant from Latin America, and she came up with this idea on how to make a living and serve other people,” said immigration attorney Castor Hess. “It’s her brainchild. And it’s still there.”

Michaela Winberg is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn. She covers LGBTQ people and culture, public spaces, and transportation and mobility. She also sometimes produces radio and web features...