DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Debbie Elliott.
The Swift Company says production at its meat packing plants is running at reduced levels following the arrest this week of some 1300 undocumented workers by federal agents. Many have been charged with identity fraud. The raids affected plants in six states.
Yesterday, I spoke about the arrests with Julie Myers, the assistant secretary of Homeland Security for Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Well, Julie Myers, welcome. Thank you for talking with us today.
Ms. JULIE MYERS (Assistant Secretary, Department of Homeland Security, Immigration and Customs Enforcement): Oh, thanks for having me.
ELLIOTT: You know, earlier this year, Immigration and Customs Enforcement cracked down on businesses who were hiring illegal workers and then looking the other way. Does - and promised that you would continue to do that. Now that you've had this recent crackdown on the workers themselves, is this signaling a shift in strategy?
Ms. MYERS: Not at all. In fact, just yesterday two owners of a fence company out in San Diego pleaded guilty to knowingly employing illegal aliens, and agreed to pay a substantial multi-million dollar fine. So we're definitely continuing our work against egregious employers. But we're also looking to see how illegal aliens get into the workplace. And we're taking action then if, as in this instance, they were stealing identities of U.S. citizens.
ELLIOTT: Explain to me how that worked. These workers actually had a Social Security Number and a name that matched up, but they were not their own. But they were using this to use as their documentation for work?
Ms. MYERS: That's right. They were using the identities of other U.S. citizens to work at the Swift plant. In some cases they were also using those fake identities when they were out trying to obtain credit, when they were arrested on criminal charges, or when they were going about their other business. And this caused harm to U.S. victims.
ELLIOTT: Is this something new?
Ms. MYERS: Well, I think it is a growing trend. They used to use kind of phony documents with phony identities, and now we're seeing that they're using genuine documents with the identities of real U.S. victims, people who don't know that their identities are being used.
ELLIOTT: How did you first discover this whole idea that there was identity theft going on here?
Ms. MYERS: This case actually started, as many cases do, from a great tip from local police. They noticed something in Marshalltown, Iowa and tipped us on to looking at our interviews in the jail system. We regularly interview aliens who have been processed in the jail systems to see whether or not there might be other charges or to process them from removal. And what we're finding out is that a number of these aliens in Marshalltown, Iowa told us they worked at Swift and that they had assumed identities of other U.S. citizens in order to get hired at Swift.
ELLIOTT: Is there any evidence that this wasn't only identity theft, but that in some cases people were actually selling their identities?
Ms. MYERS: There certainly was evidence that in some instances individuals were selling their identities. It's important to note each of the aliens assumed the identities of others, whether or not the U.S. person willing provided that.
ELLIOTT: You know, there have been reports in the days following this raid of children left in schools, not knowing where their parents were, and just criticisms of the harshness of this type of a raid. How does the department respond to those?
Ms. MYERS: Well, with respect to children, we asked every individual that we encountered whether or not they were the sole caregiver for a child. If they indicated to us that they were, we made special accommodations so that they could obtain their child and be out to take care of the child.
ELLIOTT: Why did you focus the Swift and Company meat packing plant? You know, they were part of a pilot project here trying to work with the government to verify Social Security numbers.
Ms. MYERS: Well, it's important to note that the company has not been charged. We focused on the illegal activity going on at Swift because we got tips from local police. And frankly, we were getting anonymous tips to our hotline telling us that Swift hired illegal aliens.
ELLIOTT: Are you satisfied with the cooperation that you've received from Swift?
Ms. MYERS: The company was certainly very cooperative on the day of the raids.
ELLIOTT: But otherwise?
Ms. MYERS: You know, at this point, that's all I'm prepared to talk about. The investigation is ongoing and Swift has not been charged with any crime.
ELLIOTT: Will they be?
Ms. MYERS: At this point, I - you know, obviously, I can't talk about that.
ELLIOTT: You know, how far should employers go to verify documents or the authenticity of a worker's documents? If Swift in fact was cross-checking the government database for these Social Security numbers, you know, where does the responsibility lie. If your system isn't throwing up a red flag that this is a duplicate, what is a company supposed to do?
Ms. MYERS: Well, we've always said that Basic Pilot is not a silver bullet and it really should be used in conjunction with many other best practices for employers.
ELLIOTT: And Basic Pilot is the name of the program in which Swift and other employers are using to check Social Security numbers.
Ms. MYERS: That's correct.
ELLIOTT: Tell me how that works.
Ms. MYERS: Basic Pilot is a program that allows an employer to submit a name and a Social Security Number to see both, whether or not they match, and also to ensure that the Social Security Number is valid. What it does not do is to tell you whether or not somebody is serving as an imposter for another individual, whether or not I am submitting your information, for example.
ELLIOTT: But right now, the law does not allow you to sort of figure out if somebody is using it falsely.
Ms. MYERS: That's correct. Right now, the Social Security Administration has limits on the sort of information they could provide to us.
ELLIOTT: Why? Is that because of privacy concerns that they're not allowed to give that information to you?
Ms. MYERS: Yes. It would be very helpful, for example, if they could then tell us this name is valid, Social Security number is valid. But gee, it's being used in seven different cities across the country. Right now they're legally prohibited form doing that. The department and the administration are seeking changes in the law, and the secretary has been very aggressive in helping to get those changes so we can have that tool.
ELLIOTT: Julie Myers is assistant secretary of the Department of Homeland Security for Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Thank you.
Ms. MYERS: Oh, thanks so much for having me.