Tuesday, May 05, 2009


Federal prosecutors got slapped again, this time by the US Supreme Court in a unanimous decision (a rarity). The Court's ruling came in an immigration case involving the use of false social security numbers by illegal workers. From the NY Times:

The Supreme Court on Monday rejected a favorite tool of prosecutors in immigration cases, ruling unanimously that a federal identity-theft law may not be used against many illegal workers who used false Social Security numbers to get jobs.

The question in the case was whether workers who use fake identification numbers to commit some other crimes must know they belong to a real person to be subject to a two-year sentence extension for “aggravated identity theft.”

The answer, the Supreme Court said, is yes.

It's a fairly common practice for illegal workers to present randomly generated social security numbers to employers when seeking a job. Most have no idea whether that number is actually assigned to someone else. They just want a job. The irony of prosecuting them for violation of the federal identity-theft law is that the "victim" of the crime, the true holder of the account, is not only not harmed by the "crime," they are actually benefited by it because money is paid into their account by the undocumented worker.

So why the use of the statute by prosecutors? Well, it's a handy way to get the detained worker to plead to a lesser criminal offense so that deportation is easier:

The most sweeping use of the statute was in Iowa, after an immigration raid in May 2008 at a meatpacking plant in Postville. Nearly 300 unauthorized immigrant workers from the plant, most of them from Guatemala, pleaded guilty to document-fraud charges rather than risk being convicted at trial of the identity-theft charge. In most of those cases, the prosecutors demonstrated only that the Social Security numbers and immigration documents the workers had presented were false.

Many of the immigrants served five-month prison sentences and then faced summary deportation. The Postville cases raised an outcry among immigrant advocates, because they transformed into federal felonies a common practice by illegal immigrants of presenting fake Social Security numbers and other documents to employers. ...

Stephen H. Legomsky, a professor of immigration law at Washington University School of Law in St. Louis, said Monday’s decision would have a major impact on the strategy of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, making it more difficult for the agency to press criminal charges against immigrants with no other offenses but working illegally.

That the court found this over-reaching completely unacceptable can be seen in the fact that all eight justices hearing the case concurred in the outcome. That's a pretty heavy slap-down, and one that is welcome.

[Note: the full text of Flores-Figueroa v. United States in non-pdf format can be found here.]

Labels: ,


Blogger Karin said...

Great catch, Diane. I am thinking of the immigrant women who already lost their children because they were put up for adoption while they were in jail on this identity theft charge.

6:02 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home