Federal Judge Harry S. Mattice Jr. (Tennessee Eastern District Court), a former Republican Party chairman and Bush-appointed U.S. Attorney, has called into question the validity of describing a Social Security card as a form of identification. He was presiding over a case resulting from an ICE workplace enforcement operation earlier this year at five different poultry processing plants operated by Pilgrim’s Pride. ICE arrested 311 foreign nationals, 91 of whom were charged with criminal violations.
Moments before two illegal aliens prepared to enter guilty pleas to charges of using false Social Security numbers for employment purposes, the judge advised the two illegal aliens (one of whom had been previously deported) that they should not enter guilty pleas. The judge reasoned that the charge, which outlaws the use of false identification documents, would not stick because the statute at issue does not specifically mention the term “social security card.” The judge explained:
This is an issue that will have to be decided by a higher court. I’m not sure you can base this charge on a false Social Security card.
The aliens have been given more time to assess their pleas.
Although it is somewhat unclear exactly what portion of the statute the judge found problematic, at least one of the original indictments focuses on 18 U.S.C. § 1546(b)(1), titled “Fraud and misuse of visas, permits, and other documents” which reads, in part:
Whoever uses…an identification document, knowing (or having reason to know) that the document was not issued lawfully for the use of the possessor…for the purpose of satisfying a requirement of section 274A(b) of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) [8 U.S.C. § 1324a(b)], shall be fined under this title, imprisoned not more than 5 years, or both.
Now while § 1546 does not specifically mention Social Security cards, it clearly refers to § 1324a(b), titled “Unlawful employment of aliens” which reads, in part:
Documents evidencing employment authorization. A document described in this subparagraph is an individual’s…(i) social security account number card…or (ii) other documentation evidencing authorization of employment in the United States which the Attorney General finds, by regulation, to be acceptable…
Taken together, it is logical to conclude that Congress has made Social Security cards a form of identification for employment purposes and that falsifying such cards is a direct violation of the INA. In fact, countless similar cases have been successfully prosecuted under these statutes. However, the judge in this case points to a ruling in the Tyson’s Foods illegal immigration case from 2003 where the defendant company was able to convince the judge in that case that Social Security cards are not valid identification.
Unfortunately, the judge does not seem to be too concerned about the effect mass document fraud has on American workers. ICE explains it quite succinctly on their website:
ICE agents have interviewed numerous individuals during the course of the probe whose identities were stolen by Pilgrim’s Pride employees. Those victims described a myriad of hardships they suffered as a result, including mistaken tax liens, denial of medical and social services benefits, and damage to their credit ratings. Misuse of Social Security account numbers is a felony that carries a maximum penalty of five years in federal prison and a fine of up to $250,000.
Government officials have taken a keen interest in this ruling. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is concerned that the ruling might jeopardize the entire E-Verify program. Meanwhile, the Justice Department, concerned about pending and future prosecutions, is working on finding a way to clarify the statute.