This week, the United States Supreme Court has said that it will take a case which could have great significance for immigrants across the country. In Ignacio Carlos Flores-Figueroa v. United States of America, the Supreme Court will determine whether an immigrant who uses another person’s social security number for work can be charged with aggravated identity theft.

Until May of this year, workers detained for immigration violations were usually charged with just that–immigration violations–and deported. Immigration violations are civil offenses, which do not carry jail time.

But after the ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) raid on May 12 in Postville, Iowa, over three hundred immigrant workers were threatened with charges of aggravated identity theft–a federal criminal offense. Such a conviction would carry a two-year prison sentence.

With this threat hanging over their heads, 302 immigrant workers were pressured into pleading guilty to lesser charges rather than being charged with aggravated identity theft. These lesser charges may bar many of them from returning to the United States ever again, even if their family remains in the U.S.

Critics of this tactic, including the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) have pointed out that the pressure to accept lesser charges in order to avoid a felony may have caused workers to accept plea agreements requiring them to give up rights to immigration relief they may not have realized that they had. Furthermore, they may not have received adequate counsel to navigate two complex areas of law, criminal and immigration.

Most importantly, AILA point out that aggravated identity theft is intended to refer to situations in which a person knowingly steals the identity of another person in order to commit financial or other fraud. But in many cases, the immigrants threatened with these charges may not even have been aware that the social security numbers they were using belonged to other people.

The question is whether, if a worker makes up a random nine digit number to use as a social security number to obtain a job, and later that number turns out to belong to another person, should the worker be held accountable for aggravated identity theft–a felony–even if he or she never attempted to assume the other person’s identity?

This was the case of Ignacio Flores-Figueroa, a Mexican citizen who used a counterfeit Social Security card bearing his real name and a false Social Security number in order to get a job at a steel plant in Illinois. Flores-Figueroa was unaware that the number he used belonged to a minor, and he was convicted with aggravated identity theft by the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis. Now his case has made it all he way to the Supreme Court, who will review his case next year.

Their ruling could determine the fate of thousands of people. Federal appellate courts in Richmond and Atlanta judging similar cases have handed down convictions, while courts in Boston, San Francisco and Washington have determined that prosecutors must prove that the defendant had knowledge that the social security number they were using belonged to someone else. The Supreme Court’s ruling may have important influence over similar cases in the future.

For more information about the legal aftermath of Postville and how charges of aggravated identity theft harm immigrants, see Bush Administration Takes Unprecedented Punitive Action Against Postville Workers.

To read about the Supreme Court’s decision to take up Flores-Figueroa’s case, see Justices Will Hear Identity Theft Case.

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Lisa Swanson

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