Supreme Court Ruling in Identity-Theft Case Too Late for Some Immigrants

By Diego Graglia, FI2W web editor

Last year under the Bush Administration hundreds of immigrants rounded up at work-site raids were charged with “aggravated identity theft” for using Social Security numbers that belonged to other people.

Monday, the Supreme Court said in a unanimous decision that the federal government cannot use the charge in those cases: “the crime is limited to those who knew they had stolen another person’s Social Security number,” the Los Angeles Times reported.

In Flores-Figueroa vs. United States, the Court said the government had failed to prove that the defendant, Ignacio Flores-Figueroa, a Mexican man from Illinois, knew that his fraudulent documents belonged to another person.

Ignacio Flores-Figueroa, a citizen of Mexico, said he had bought a set of false documents in Chicago and used them to work at a steel plant in East Moline, Ill. His employer later reported him to immigration authorities. He was charged with entering the country illegally, using false documents and aggravated identity theft. Only the latter charge was at issue in the Supreme Court.

[ Los Angeles Times ]

The ruling “makes it harder for federal prosecutors to use the aggravated identity theft statute to boost prison sentences in undocumented immigrant cases,” the Christian Science Monitor said. Prosecutors would now have to prove that the defendant knew the actual numbers he or she used belonged to someone else.

But the decision will bring little consolation to those immigrants who, after some Bush-era raids, agreed to a guilty plea and a quick deportation. After some work-site raids where hundreds of undocumented workers were detained, the threat of a long prison sentence convinced many of them to agree to be deported instead.

The Bush Administration “used the identity theft law hundreds of times last year,” The Associated Press reported. “Workers accused of immigration violations found themselves facing the more serious identity theft charge as well, without any indication they knew their counterfeit Social Security and other identification numbers belonged to actual people and were not made up.”

In the particular case of the Agriprocessors slaughterhouse raid in Postville, Iowa, 270 undocumented workers were charged with identity theft. “They all accepted plea deals in which they also agreed not to contest deportation,” The A.P. said.

But illustrating the arbitrary nature of the law –which several justices commented on during arguments in February– an additional 100 workers arrested in the same raid faced less serious charges because their identification numbers were made up.

The aggravated identity theft charge adds a mandatory two years in prison to any sentence. But, the Times said, “(t)he lesser charge of using false documents is not a felony and does not trigger an automatic deportation.”

While the ruling will affect the cases of undocumented workers using fake documents to get jobs, it is not expected to have an effect on “non-immigration identity-theft cases,” Reuters said. In those cases, criminals who steal Social Security numbers to, for example, access a bank account, do it knowingly — the word on which the Supreme Court decision was based.

According to the Monitor,

(Justice Stephen) Breyer rejected government concerns that the court’s ruling might make it more difficult to prosecute false document cases.

“In the classic case of identity theft, intent is generally not difficult to prove,” Breyer wrote. “Where a defendant has used another person’s identification information to get access to that person’s bank account, the government can prove knowledge with little difficulty. The same is true when the defendant has gone through someone else’s trash to find discarded credit card and bank statements.”

AboutDiego Graglia
Diego Graglia is a bilingual multimedia journalist who has worked at major media outlets in the U.S. and Latin America. He is currently the editor-in-chief at Expansion, Meixco’s leading business magazine.