New immigration rift
Saturday, November 15, 2008
While many Greeley residents applauded the latest crackdown on suspected identity thieves, some immigration attorneys call the Weld County sting another misdirected effort that will break up hundreds of families and result in few identity theft convictions.
Kimberly Baker-Medina, a Fort Collins immigration attorney, said Friday she had been contacted by some relatives of suspects arrested in the ongoing sting, which she views as a grim repeat of what happened in Greeley two years ago.
She said the sweep is an ineffective way to deal with “a completely dysfunctional” U.S. immigration system and deals another blow to a community still recovering from the Swift & Co. raid in December 2006. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents arrested 262 workers who were held while agents determined if they were living legally in the United States. Most ended up being deported. The company has since been sold to JBS S.A., a Brazil-based meatpacker.
“The stated goal of the ICE raid was to catch people committing identity theft,” Baker-Medina said, noting that only a few of those arrested ended up being convicted of that crime. The result was to tear nearly 300 people out of our community, or to break up 300 families.
“The stated goal of this (sting) may be to catch 1,300 identity thieves. The result could be breaking up 1,000 families.”
All of the people picked up in the sting — the Weld District Attorney’s Office estimates that in the next year it could arrest about 1,300 workers on suspicion of identity theft or criminal impersonation — will go into ICE holds.
“The solution is not rounding up people in police raids like Swift or little tax services that serve Latinos,” she said. “The solution is passing some sort of immigration reform.” A key reform would allow people who are illegal immigrants currently working in the United States — estimated at 12 million — to continue to work legally and pay taxes, she said.
Tax filings are where this large-scale sting, dubbed by authorities as “Operation Number Games,” began.
A call from a Texas man saying that someone working in northern Colorado was using his Social Security number eventually led to the arrest of Servando Trejo as he worked at his job at a Kersey feed lot. A Weld County Sheriff’s detective subsequently learned that Trejo, who had received large tax refunds despite paying low taxes, had his tax returns prepared by Amalia’s Translation and Tax Services, 1501 9th St. in Greeley.
According to Trejo’s arrest affidavit, Amalia Cerrillo told authorities she processed tax returns for Trejo and other clients who came in with false Social Security numbers. She used those numbers to apply for Individual Tax Identification Numbers from the Internal Revenue Service, allowing clients to file a tax return.
Saying they had probable cause to suspect more potential identity thieves had tax records on file at Amalia’s, authorities got a search warrant and seized tax returns of more than 4,000 clients dating to 2000.
That led them to secure arrest warrants for 1,300 suspected cases of identity theft or criminal impersonation.
Of the hundreds of Social Security numbers being investigated, the Social Security Administration is granting only 10 names a week to the DA’s Office. Weld District Attorney Ken Buck said it could take more than a year to find out if the numbers are valid or fictitious.
He said the investigation is “overwhelming,” considering in a typical year his office files 2,500 felony cases.
Buck said he agrees that most of the suspects will be charged with the lesser felony of criminal impersonation rather than identity theft.
“It’s probably a majority, but it’s not 98 percent to 2 percent,” he said. “It’s probably a majority that will be criminal impersonation cases, based on what we’re seeing so far.”
Jeff Joseph, a Denver immigration attorney, said Buck “loves to be a renegade” on immigration issues.
He said he believes the sting is a calculated strategy to round up suspects before the Supreme Court rules on what constitutes violation of federal law in identity theft cases. The matter is currently split, with three U.S. circuit courts ruling that the government must prove a defendant knew an ID belonged to another person rather than being just made up, while three other circuits have held that a conviction only requires proof the defendant knew the ID didn’t belong to him or her.
The issue will be resolved within the next year by the high court, Joseph said. “In the meantime, Ken Buck, right out of the chute is racing to get these convictions in before the Supreme Court rules on the issue. These people will be long gone by then. They will have pled guilty to crimes they never should have pled to in the first place. …
“The timing of (the sting) is awfully suspicious to me,” Joseph added. “He has to be aware that this issue is not fully settled.”
Buck said Friday he’s not aware of the circuit courts’ 3-3 split on the matter, or the impending Supreme Court review. He said he’s abiding by Colorado statutes, which say a defendant is guilty of identity theft if he or she knows an ID belongs to another person.
He said if the ID is fictitious, or made up, the crime is criminal impersonation.
The possibility of wrongdoing by the tax preparer — two years worth of refunds to the 1,300 suspects is expected to total as much as $2.7 million, while they paid about $1 million in taxes — is a separate matter from the evidence found of identity theft, Buck said. “We’re not prosecuting the tax case.”
The affidavit on Trejo said that agent Stephen Bratten, with the Colorado Department of Revenue, reviewed the case and said Cerrillo is conducting business according to IRS guidelines and hasn’t violated any laws.
Joseph said most suspects in the sting likely don’t understand complicated tax rules, and rely on a tax preparer’s guidance in what information to include on the forms. Buck should aim the investigation on whether the tax preparer defrauded the government, he said.
“They should be investigating that rather than splitting apart 1,300 families, especially when they know the charges are questionable in the first place,” Joseph said.
Many Greeley residents praise local law enforcement for stepping up on the issue of illegal immigration.
Greeley Mayor Ed Clark, a former police officer, said identity theft is a “significant problem” in the city.
“I support Ken Buck 100 percent,” Clark said. “If you break the law, you pay the consequences.”
Rich Lopez, president of the Greeley Group, an organization that meets monthly to discuss city issues and make recommendations, said he agrees with the sting, but admits it will be hard on the local Latino community.
“I think it’s about time we did something about the identity theft problem,” Lopez said. “We rely on law enforcement and those agencies to step up and take a first step and try to solve and fix things.”
Ron Williams, 71, of Greeley said identity theft cases need to be investigated, but “I don’t know how you stop it.”
“I’ve got nothing against (immigrants) coming here and working, if they just do it the right way,” he said.
Arrests continue this weekend
Weld County sheriff’s deputies, along with the Greeley police and the Weld District Attorney’s Office, continued their searches Friday for people suspected in identity thefts or criminal impersonations in Weld County.
Two more men were arrested Friday, bringing the total arrests to 15.
Deputies will continue searching for named suspects through the weekend, and the investigation is expected to last for a year or more, with possibly more than 1,300 arrests.
As of Friday, 98 cases had been presented by the DA’s office, and warrants were requested on each of them. Law officers need the judge-approved warrant to make the arrests.
Saturday, November 15, 2008
New immigration rift