To catch a thief: SCOTUS on undocumented workers

By Michelle Chen May 05, 2009

The Supreme Court gave the feds an important grammar lesson yesterday when it clamped down a common legal weapon used against immigrants: “identity theft” charges that target undocumented workers using falsified documents. According to the Court’s opinion:

Section §1028(a)(1) requires the Government to show that the defendant knew that the means of identification at issue belonged to another person. As a matter of ordinary English grammar, ‘knowingly’ is naturally read as applying to all the subsequently listed elements of the crime. Where a transitive verb has an object, listeners in most contexts assume that an adverb (such as ‘knowingly’) that modifies the verb tells the listener how the subject performed the entire action, including the object.

Translation: under the law, to prove that an immigrant knowingly stole someone’s identification number, the government needs to show the immigrant knew the number really belonged to someone. The case of Ignacio Flores-Figueroa, a Mexican immigrant who worked at an Illinois steel plant, came before the court because he had followed the path of countless other undocumented workers. In 2000, he “gave his employer a false name, birth date, and Social Security number, along with a counterfeit alien registration card. The Social Security number and the number on the alien registration card were not those of a real person.” In 2006, he resubmitted his papers using his real name. Ironically, his attempt to solidify his real-life identity led him to use new numbers that belonged, this time, to real people. The government charged Flores-Figueroa with illegal entry, and on top of that, “aggravated identity theft," citing his “stolen” numbers. The identity-theft charge alone could tack two years onto someone’s sentence. That threat tightens pressure on the worker to plead guilty—the choice that many workers made after being swept up in the notorious raid at the Aggriprocessors meatpacking plant in Postville, Iowa. But the Court unanimously supported Flores-Figueroa’s legal challenge, concluding that the law requires proof that the immigrant knew the number had another owner. An analogy:

“Would we apply a statute that makes it unlawful ‘knowingly to possess drugs’ to a person who steals a passenger’s bag without knowing that the bag has drugs inside?”

A separate opinion by Justice Alito argues that “the Government’s interpretation leads to exceedingly odd results”: culpability would be a gamble, depending on whether the number can be traced to a real individual. Now for some philosophizing: in some ways, the federal government’s current logic on identity theft reflects the arbitrariness of other public attitudes on immigration. With Pavlovian reflexivity, reactionary groups endlessly blame immigrants for stealing—sucking up public services, draining taxpayer funds, grabbing jobs they don’t deserve—all arguments bred by a mythology of entitlement, rooted in a bankrupt system of exclusion. (The irony is perhaps best illustrated by the masses of money that the Social Security system has culled from the wages of undocumented workers using “counterfeit” numbers.) When policies fail, immigrants who did what they needed to do to survive will inevitably be left holding the bag. So, what about Flores-Figueroa, whose fudged papers caught the attention of the highest court in the land? According to his lawyer, after finishing out his sentence in a federal prison, he will most likely be deported. His numbers might not have helped his job prospects, but they did change the fate of undocumented workers across the country, while potentially forcing a broad shift in immigration enforcement. Who says immigrants don’t contribute to society? Image: Postville, IA rally, via flickr.