Dec. 15, 2006 – When federal agents raided six meatpacking facilities and arrested more than 1,200 workers this week, immigration officials said they were cracking down on "a massive identity-theft scheme that has victimized large numbers of US citizens and lawful US residents."
Julie Myers, assistant secretary for US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said in a press statement that an investigation "uncovered a disturbing front in the war against illegal immigration." He said the agency would make cracking down on the use of stolen Social Security numbers "one of ICEâ€™s highest priorities."
But it is not at all clear the problem is substantial, let alone "massive," since ICE itself doesnâ€™t appear to know how many citizens it actually affects. Out of the workers arrested, fewer than 65 were picked up on charges related to identity theft. ICE did not say exactly how many.
Immigration-rights advocates blast the "identity theft" charges as "inflammatory," arguing the justification distorts the intentions of undocumented workers.
"It really concerns me because identity theft connotes trying to take advantage of another person, trying to use their credit cards and do all sorts of things to steal from another person," said Rebecca Smith, a director with the National Employment Law Project. "Generally these are just workers trying to get a job."
Undocumented immigrants often make up a Social Security number that may or may not exist when they apply for a job. In other instances, according to Smith, employers provide their workers with recycled numbers, or an ID trafficker sells fake or real Social Security cards to immigrants needing documentation to work.
Undocumented workers generally do not take numbers with the goal of stealing money.
According to an ICE statement, the agency has in recent months arrested several individuals who have allegedly either stolen Social Security cards from US citizens or bought them from homeless or imprisoned people.
The more nefarious brand of "identity thieves" can use Social Security numbers to get other personal information or apply for more credit to make purchases under the identity-theft victimâ€™s name. However, Josh Bernstein of the National Immigrant Law Center says undocumented workers generally do not take numbers with the goal of stealing money. Instead, they just use the number to obtain employment.
Nevertheless, if a worker uses a real Social Security number that belongs to an actual living person, that person could be harmed. The Internal Revenue Service can charge taxes on earnings that worker never accrued, or the worker could have trouble claiming unemployment payments when out of work.
"All of these things can be fixed, but itâ€™s certainly a time-consuming situation for the person victimized," said Jonathan Lasher, deputy counsel to the Social Security Administrationâ€™s inspector general.
But Bernstein said the raids last week were off-target. "Theyâ€™re attacking the symptom, not the problem," he said. "Our immigration system is broken, so people who want to work canâ€™t do so legally. If we legalize Social Security numbers for undocumented workers, they would have their own valid Social Security numbers and that would greatly reduce the problem."
The Internal Revenue Service already provides undocumented workers with tax ID numbers they can use to file tax returns. But since undocumented workers contribute to the Social Security fund under false numbers, they almost never request benefits. That unclaimed money ends up bolstering the Social Security system.
Last year, the Social Security Administrationâ€™s chief actuary Stephen Goss told the New York Times that without the Social Security taxes from wages in the agencyâ€™s Earnings Suspense File â€“ where deposits from workers go when their numbers and names donâ€™t match up â€“ the Social Security systemâ€™s long-term funding crisis would deepen by about 10 percent.