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ID theft lands immigrant in Huber Dorm

---Man used number of a retired Wisconsin teacher

Mike Heine/The Week

(Published August 9, 2007, 1:36 p.m.)

A Mexican immigrant who crossed the border into the United States illegally got a job to support his family. He made up a Social Security number to secure employment. It was the only way, his defense attorney said.

But the number belonged to a retired Wisconsin schoolteacher, who now has to cut through red tape to get her federal insurance benefits, Assistant District Attorney Diane Donohoo said.

"This is an example of why we prosecute these crimes," Donohoo said after the sentencing hearing for 30-year-old Rafael Cortes Reyes. The 68-year-old former teacher is not seeking restitution, but is having difficulty receiving her Medicare and other insurance benefits, Donohoo said.

"That is not fair to her."

Cortes Reyes was a former employee at Star Packaging in Whitewater, a company that was raided by federal agents and local police exactly one year prior to his sentencing.

He was one of three former employees charged with identity theft. Twenty-five Mexican employees were arrested a year ago, many of whom have been deported.

Cortes Reyes came to the U.S. because conditions in his native country were poor. He often didn't have enough food to eat, defense attorney Munjed Ahmad said.

He made up the number to get a job and has been an otherwise law-abiding man since coming to Whitewater in 1999, Ahmad said. He has been supporting a wife and two sons, ages 3 and 18 months, and family who remained in Mexico.

Now he's a convicted felon with a six-month sentence in the Walworth County Huber Dorm who will likely be deported upon his release.

"I thought it was a little bit harsh, considering all the dynamics in this case," Ahmad said of Judge James Carlson's sentence. "Looking at the human factor in this case, I thought the sentence was a little bit tough.

"I was really hoping the court would see this for what it was, and that's a man trying to make a better life for his family."

Donohoo said this isn't a victimless crime. Using someone's Social Security number to gain employment is a felony, she said. Even if the number was made up and not assigned to anybody, it could still be considered theft by fraud, she said.

Star Packaging owner, Allen L. Petrie, recently pleaded guilty to five counts conspiring to commit identity theft by knowingly hiring people with stolen or made up identities. He has not yet been sentenced.

A broken immigration system is driving immigrants to steal or make up identities, Ahmad said.

"I think the immigration system does need reform. It needs reform in the worst way," Ahmad said. "I think that the individuals that are doing these types of identity theft crimes feel that they have no other recourse. They feel like, 'I want to make a better life for my family and this is the only means to do so.' So they feel like they're kind of forced into it"

Ahmad didn't think Cortes Reyes would have ever been charged if the number he made up didn't belong to anybody.

Although they could, Donohoo said her office has never charged anybody with a crime under those the circumstances.

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