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DHS: Identity theft a growing means for illegal immigration

A lack of action in Congress and no "magic bullet" to solve increasingly complex immigration problems played roles in the events leading up to and the execution of "Operation Wagon Train" this week at six Swift and Company packing plants around the country.

The Department of Homeland Security-Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids of the beef and pork processing facilities Tuesday were the products of months of investigation into both illegal immigration and identity theft, federal officials said Wednesday. In this case, according to Assistant DHS Secretary Julie Myers, the two went hand-in-hand, investigators learned early on in the process that began in February 2006.

"In this case, ICE agents conducting [Criminal Alien Program] interviews in Marshalltown, Iowa, found a troubling pattern," Myers said Wednesday. "They kept on interviewing criminal aliens who said they worked at Swift and who admitted that they had assumed identities -- other's identities in order to circumvent employment eligibility screening.

"At the same time we were conducting these CAP interviews, we started receiving referrals from local police agencies, and we also had several calls to our hotline from anonymous individuals who reported illegal aliens working at Swift.

"These factors led us to open this investigation," Myers said.

Swift officials have denied knowingly hiring illegal immigrants.

Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said Wednesday the Swift plant raids were not based on workers' possible illegal citizenship status, but also the fact some are accused of identity theft. This, Chertoff said, makes the case altogether different.

"The evidence we uncovered indicates that hundreds of Swift workers illegally assumed the identities of U.S. citizens, using stolen or fraudulently acquired Social Security numbers and other identity documents which they used to get jobs at Swift facilities," Chertoff said. "This is not only a case about illegal immigration, which is bad enough. It's a case about identity theft in violation of the privacy rights and the economic rights of innocent Americans. I will tell you that the people whose identities were stolen -- and we believe, based on reporting we got at the federal Trade Commission (FTC) -- that these number at least in the hundreds. These individuals suffered very real consequences in their lives. These were not victimless crimes."

Illegal immigrants using fraudulently obtained, yet legitimate, identities compounds an already huge problem, Myers said. What was once sporadically documented is becoming a regular occurrence.

"In recent years, this fraud has evolved into a disturbing new trend. Now, instead of obtaining fraudulent documents with fraudulent identities, illegal aliens are buying genuine documents with real identities, identities of unwitting U.S. citizens," Myers said Wednesday. "Combating this new and burgeoning problem is one of our highest priorities, and that's why back in April of this year, ICE and the Department of Justice established document and benefit fraud task forces in 11 major cities throughout the United States."

Using stolen identities, Chertoff explained, allows illegal immigrants to circumvent the "Basic Pilot" program employed by Swift and other corporations like it. Basic Pilot checks employees' social security numbers and names for legitimacy. This, he said, helps prevent workers using falsified documents, which is considered more typical illegal immigration. But, in the case of the individuals sought out in ICE's "Operation Wagon Train" Tuesday, Basic Pilot is useless.

"What Basic Pilot does is it allows participating employers to check names and Social Security numbers by perspective employees to make sure that the name matches the Social Security number, and that the Social Security number is, in fact, legitimate and real within the system. That is a very, very useful tool in preventing one kind of use of identity for purposes of illegal immigration and illegal work. But it is not a magic bullet for every kind of problem," Chertoff said. "There is a separate problem, a more sophisticated problem, that arises when people actually steal legitimate names and numbers that match together, and then use those stolen identities to get work. So that, while Basic Pilot inoculates a company against one kind of illegal immigration fraud, it doesn't inoculate against all kinds of fraud. There are additional tools that we have to bring into play.

"The analogy I use is, a polio vaccine protects you against polio, it doesn't protect you against tetanus. You've got to use multiple kinds of vaccines to protect against multiple kinds of problems."

A loophole within the Social Security Administration is partly responsible for the propagation of identity theft as a means for illegal immigrants' entry into the U.S. Closing this loophole, widening the Basic Pilot program and Congress approving a temporary worker program are the only ways this type of illegal immigration can be stemmed.

"There's a legal obstacle. The law currently does not allow the Social Security Administration to refer to us instances where the same Social Security number is used on multiple occasions in multiple work places as a basis for obtaining jobs. If we were able to get the legal authority to do this kind of review of information, we could much more readily identify the kind of identity theft and identity fraud that we discovered in this case. We have urged Congress to act to give us this authority," Chertoff said Tuesday. "Once again, I call on Congress, when Congress returns early next year, to take up this issue of revising the Social Security rules so we can further protect Americans from identity theft, and protect our borders against illegal immigration."

Doing so, however, must also take into account the business element, such as the labor needs of Swift and other similar corporations.

"We need Congress to act if there's going to be a temporary worker program," Chertoff said. "That would be a program that would allow businesses that need foreign workers, because they can't otherwise satisfy their labor needs, to be able to get those workers in a regulated program that gives us visibility into who is coming in, has a secure form of identification, and makes sure that the federal government is able to collect and properly allocate all the necessary taxes.

"I shouldn't have to remind people this problem has been with us for decades. It won't be solved overnight, and it won't be solved with a piecemeal approach. What's required is a comprehensive approach."

A lack of action in Congress and no "magic bullet" to solve increasingly complex immigration problems played roles in the events leading up to and the execution of "Operation Wagon Train" this week at six Swift and Company packing plants around the country.

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