Highest Court Ends Misuse of Identity Theft Law that Punished Innocent Immigrant Workers

On Monday, the Supreme Court decided an important case, Flores-Figueroa v. United States, which has serious implications for immigrant workers. In a unanimous decision, the Court held that "aggravated identity theft," a serious federal crime imposing a mandatory minimum two-year prison sentence, cannot be used to criminalize persons who have no knowledge that a false ID or Social Security number or other means of identification they are using belongs to another person.

During the Bush Administration, the government prosecuted or threatened to prosecute hundreds of immigrant workers for aggravated identity theft even when there was no evidence that the worker knew that he or she was using false documents that belonged to another person. As the Supreme Court has now held, the government's view contradicted the plain words of the statute, which requires knowledge.

The most notorious example of this occurred almost one year ago, on May 12, 2008, when U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raided a slaughterhouse in Postville, Iowa and subjected more than 300 Guatemalan and Mexican workers to criminal prosecution for using false documents to work. The prosecutions were designed and implemented to achieve high-pressure, mass processing of hundreds of indigent defendants in an extremely short period of time. Not only were few attorneys appointed to represent hundreds of defendants, but the government threatened workers with charges of aggravated identity theft — carrying the two-year mandatory prison sentence — if they did not plead guilty (within seven days) to knowingly using false employment documents or a false Social Security number with a sentence of five months incarceration.

As a result, the workers were faced with the choice between two years in prison or a shorter term of five months. Within days, the overwhelming majority of workers pled guilty and served five months or longer in prison. Some of them are still in prison today.

The ACLU submitted testimony to Congress on the abuses that occurred in Postville.

Most of the workers employed by Agriprocessors, Inc. in Postville were reportedly given an arbitrarily selected number by their employer to use as their Social Security number. Many of the prosecuted workers did not know what the number was used for (PDF), much less that it belonged to another person.

The Court's ruling makes clear that the government can no longer use a criminal statute designed to combat actual identity theft to go after and punish immigrant workers. That the government misused the aggravated identity theft charge as a hammer to pressure Postville workers to waive all their rights and plead guilty to lesser charges was a true miscarriage of justice — the punishment simply did not fit the crime.

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Tony Sanchez

Nominee for U.S. Attorney under fire for role in Postville Iowa raid (Waterloo Courier, April 5, 2009)
The Postville prosecution of 304 workers in May 2008 using the “identity theft theory” just struck down by the Supreme Court was an outrage. It was a huge failure of judgment exercised by Northern District of Iowa United States Attorney‘s Office. Unbelievably now less than a year later, Stephanie Rose, one of top federal prosecutors responsible for the egregious and inhumane Postville, prosecutions has been recommended to be promoted by Senator Tom Harkin to the powerful position of United States Attorney for the Northern District of Iowa.
Let’s hope the Obama Administration takes a lesson from this important Supreme Court ruling and immediately stops the very troubling U.S. Attorney nomination of Stephanie Rose.
As the May 12th anniversary of the Postville Iowa Agriprocessors ICE raid nears, we all should be reminded of the outrageous way workers in the Postville prosecutions were treated: first like slaves and then denied any form of justice in a swift and chaotic criminal court proceedings orchestrated by the Northern Iowa United States Attorney’s office.
Postville was a massive failure on many levels, not the least of which was a failure of prosecutorial judgment. The fact that Ms Rose played a “central role” in this travesty and even now considers it a “success story” is very disturbing. Her role in Postville prosecutions should render her unfit to be a viable candidate to serve as a USA in the Obama Administration. Please stop Rose’s nomination


So you are telling me that these extremely intelligent people coming here to take American jobs, medical, social services, schooling, college, and anything else we give them, Have no idea that these were someone elses numbers? Give me a break!


Maggie, I hope that you were joking. If so, I apologize for misinterpreting your intent.

If not, let's think about the impact of the crime of identify theft on someone whose social security number has been stolen by an illegal immigrant vs. by a professional thief. In the first case, the victim gets credit for more contributions to the social security fund than they deserve. In the second, the victim's credit rating is damaged, requiring many hours and dollars to correct. Should the punishment be the same.


Roald no I was not joking. I was brought up that a crime is a crime, stealing is stealing. The first crime is coming in to the country illegally (but that is forgiven) the second is taking these false numbers (this is forgiven). What's next? If you let one go then they just get bigger and bigger.

I have compassion for people but sometimes there has to be an end to it. People need to know that there are consequences to their actions. If you get a free ride every time you will never learn.


Roald sorry hit the submit button before I was finished.

In reference to the social security number that is not how it works. I worked for a company for many years. For some reason the social security admin put my credit into someone elses contribution. I was contacted by social security, 2 years later wanting to know where my contribution was for that year. I had to contact my employer and have them research this information. Then the company had to submit a copy to me and to Social Security. Then I had to wait for Social Security to send me confirmation that they received the notice from my company. I was credited finally however when asking did they find the money, I was told no but they would find it. Also, that they check every account for the contributions and where they come from. All of this took me 3 months but it was my responsibilty to research it.

So either way it is a hassle for the victim.


Maggie...thanks for the note. You are correct, a crime is a crime and should be punished. Punishment should be in line with the seriousness of the offense. The law on identity theft assumes someone taking over your identity to steal. In this case, benefits were donated to the victims of the identity theft, while, wrong, an entirely different outcome.


Deport them all, close the border and lets be done with it.


See this is why we need stricter border laws... taxpayers spend billions upon billions of dollars a year on illegal immigrants. Using our health care system, our public schools, they come here and and 30% of them commit crimes so we spend more money to keep them in jail. Why can you liberals see that? we keeping providing for the illegal immigrants, it's going to bankrupt our government... Thanks to Obama bin Biden!


Roald hit it right on the nail. They are already a criminal when they knowingly come here illegaly. No respect for our country at all, just to steal from it. We are coddling all these illegals who ALREADY have a criminal mindset. It takes a criminal mindset to commit a crime. This is the kind of people comming here.


republican...How interesting that you are blaming the situation on someone in office less than half a year. Where did you get the 30% from? I bet that I can prove someone made it up.


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