WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court’s unanimous decision May 4 that said the government was wrong to prosecute illegal immigrants for identity theft in certain types of cases was the latest of several rulings and policy announcements that will effectively roll back approaches on immigration initiated by the Bush administration.
In Flores-Figueroa v. United States, the court said the federal government was wrong to charge Ignacio Carlos Flores-Figueroa with identity theft when he was found to have used someone else’s Social Security and alien registration numbers in documents for employment. The case could have implications for other immigrants who faced similar charges under a tough prosecution strategy employed over the last year or two.
That decision came three days after a federal district court ruling that ordered the federal government to reopen the immigration cases of dozens of foreign widows whose U.S.-citizen spouses died before their applications for green cards could be processed. In some cases, immigrants with pending applications for legal residency have been ordered deported after their spouses died before their cases could be processed.
The May 1 ruling by U.S. District Judge Christina A. Snyder in California applies only to a few dozen widows in Western states, but similar class-action lawsuits are pending elsewhere. A spokeswoman for the Department of Homeland Security, which includes the federal Citizenship and Immigration Services agency, told The Associated Press that Secretary Janet Napolitano has asked her staff to come up with a solution to the widows’ problem.
The same week, Homeland Security announced new guidelines for immigration enforcement, focused on the criminal prosecution of employers who knowingly hire people who lack permission to work in the United States “in order to target the root cause of illegal immigration,” said an agency fact sheet on the guidelines.
“Immigration and Customs Enforcement will continue to arrest and process for removal any illegal workers who are found in the course of these work-site enforcement actions,” the statement said. But critics of recent enforcement policies said they are encouraged by the apparent change in focus, which also will include the involvement of ICE headquarters in any workplace raids. Previously such oversight was at a more local level.
Tamar Jacoby, president of ImmigrationWorks USA, said the guidelines “send a clear message about DHS’ new thinking and new priorities.”
She said the agency “is making a critical distinction between employers deliberately breaking the law … and those trying to comply with the rules in an unworkable immigration system.”
Jacoby added that work-site enforcement would get tougher, but would be more carefully targeted at criminal activity, as opposed to employers who try to comply with the law.
Napolitano had signaled that a different approach to raids would be coming after 28 workers were arrested in February in the raid of a car-engine repair business in Bellingham, Wash. Napolitano was apparently caught off-guard by the raid, which came just a month after she became secretary. She ordered a review of the raid.
A few days later, the workers who had been arrested and taken to immigration detention were brought back to Bellingham, turned loose and given temporary permission to work pending the outcome of their cases. There have been no major ICE workplace raids since then.
Into that picture came the Supreme Court ruling on identity theft.
The opinion written by Justice Stephen Breyer said the statute requires the government to show that defendants knew the identification they used belonged to another person.
In light of the ruling, the American Immigration Lawyers Association urged Attorney General Eric Holder to order a full investigation of hundreds of similar prosecutions for identity theft, notably those from a raid in May 2008 at the Agriprocessors meatpacking plant in Postville, Iowa.
“The federal prosecutors used an overzealous and, as the Supreme Court unanimously concluded, plainly erroneous interpretation of that statute to coerce the workers, most of whom were uneducated Guatemalan farmers, into pleading guilty to a lesser charge and a five-month prison sentence in addition to accepting automatic deportation,” said a statement from David W. Leopold, first vice president of the lawyers’ association.
Helen Hartnett, advocacy attorney for the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, known as CLINIC, told Catholic News Service that the Supreme Court decision “really shows what an incorrect path the former administration was on, given the 9-0 ruling on the plain language of the statute.”