Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Supreme Court Overrules ICE Tactics to Criminalize Undocumented Workers

In its decision yesterday, the Supreme Court unanimously overruled ICE tactics of charging immigrant workers with "aggravated identity theft," a crime that has a minimum of a two-year sentence after conviction. The Court stated that to convict someone of aggravated identity theft, the government must prove that the person knew that the social security number or identification belonged to someone else.

In the case before the court, Ignacio Flora-Figuero had given his employer a fake social security in order to receive a paycheck and ensure that taxes were withdrawn to pay Social Security (even though he would never see the benefits of these payments). This is a common practice for undocumented workers who realize that to work in the formal economy, they have to obtain social security numbers (often with the encouragement or help of an employer) that are either false or belong to someone else. Most often, they do not know what the social security number is or that it could possibly belong to someone else. It's merely a number.

However, in Flora-Figuero's case, the government charged him with aggravated identity theft and misusing immigration documents. A similar charge was given to more than 300 immigrant workers swept up in the Postville, IA Agriprocessors raid. Because the identity theft charge has a minimum of a two-year jail sentence, most immigrants charged this way pled guilty to lesser charges and expedited removal from the United States. In essence, the charge was used as a weapon to threaten immigrants and to intimidate them into deportation.

The Court ruled unanimously yesterday that this was a misuse of the aggravated identity theft statute. The statute is supposed to protect people from the robbing of their personal money and property, an intent which is very different from protecting people from working under false papers. If the government wants to charge someone with identity theft, the Court said they have to be ready to prove that they knew the social security number belonged to someone else.

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