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Today, Congress joins those questioning a controversial immigration raid on a meat-packing plant in Iowa. Traditionally, illegal immigrants swept up in such raids have faced administrative charges and swift deportation. But in Iowa, the Bush administration brought criminal charges and sent hundreds of immigrants to prison. NPR's Jennifer Ludden reports.
JENNIFER LUDDEN: Iowa immigration attorney Dan Vondra says he was stunned to see immigrant workers from the Agriprocessors Packing Plant charged with aggravated identity theft. Congress created that law in 2004 to toughen penalties for what is a growing problem.
Mr. DAN VONDRA (Immigration Attorney): When you think of identity theft, what you really want to target is somebody getting credit cards in your name, ruining your credit, using your name to commit crimes, things of that nature.
LUDDEN: Instead, Vondra says these immigrants had bought stolen Social Security numbers only to work. In fact, one of the translators for the court proceedings has said the mainly Guatemalan immigrants he encountered had no idea what a Social Security card was, let alone that the numbers on it belonged to real people.
Last year, another Iowa attorney used that argument in court. Gary Koos' client had been arrested at a concrete company after buying ID off the street in order to fill out employment forms. Koos didn't think that fit the crime of aggravated identity theft.
Mr. GARY KOOS (Attorney): If you want to think of it in legal terms, it would be that a person has to be put upon notice of what the crime is. And in this case, it's knowingly to use someone else's identity. My client didn't know he had someone else's Social Security number. He just had a number.
LUDDEN: Koos lost the case on appeal, and his immigrant client is now serving five years in federal prison. But other appeals courts have agreed with Koos, and he thinks the Supreme Court may well step in to resolve the dispute.
The issue is coming up more often because of another part of the administration's immigration crackdown. More and more companies are using a federal computer program that can detect fake Social Security numbers, but it can't tell when real number's been used by another person. That's fueled a growing market for stolen IDs.
Mr. BOB TEIG (Spokesman, U.S. Attorney's Office): The issue is whether people using false identifications should be held accountable for that.
LUDDEN: Bob Teig is a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's office in northern Iowa, which prosecuted the Agriprocessors case.
He says he doesn't know whether any of the workers charged with aggravated ID theft had used Social Security numbers for anything but work, but Teig says that's not the point.
Mr. TEIG: The point is, by the time it happens it's too late. The statute is not just designed to punish. The statute is designed to prevent.
LUDDEN: To be clear, the Agriprocessors employees did not plead guilty to aggravated ID theft. But because the charge carries a two-year mandatory minimum, it put pressure on them to quickly accept a plea deal on lesser charges.
Democratic Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren of California has called for a hearing to look at that procedure. She's also an immigration attorney and questions whether due process was upheld.
Representative ZOE LOFGREN (Democrat, California): Hundreds of people were convinced to plead guilty to a crime without really an adequate opportunity to see whether they had any remedy under immigration law. And, of course, now that they've pled guilty to a crime, they have no remedies that they might otherwise have had.
LUDDEN: Not all arrested immigrant workers are being sentenced to jail time, but federal immigration officials say incarceration can be an important deterrent. And Julie Myers, head of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, says some victims of this kind of ID theft do suffer financial and legal hardships.
Ms. JULIE MYERS (Immigration and Customs Enforcement): We think it's tragic and unfortunate when people break the law by coming here and then break the law again by actually stealing the identity of U.S. citizens.
LUDDEN: So far this year, the immigration agency has made more than 900 criminal arrests. Jennifer Ludden, NPR News, Washington.
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