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

Mónica M. Ramírez,
Immigrants' Rights Project
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May 6, 2009

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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