Homeland Security officials urged Congress to give federal agencies more authority for spotting identity theft, following a sweep of six U.S. meat processing plants that revealed widespread use by illegal migrants of stolen identities to get their jobs.
Agents from ICE, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, arrested 1,282 workers Tuesday in daylong raids on six processing plants operated by Swift & Co., the nation's third-largest meat packer, federal officials revealed Wednesday. It was the largest workplace enforcement action aimed at finding illegal immigrants.
Hundreds are suspected of presenting the names of actual American citizens, along with matching Social Security numbers, when they applied for jobs at Swift.
Laws hinder reporting Social Security problems
"Identity theft is widely reported as the largest and fastest growing crime in America, and this case illustrates that illegal immigration may be a driving force behind this growth," said Julie Myers, Homeland Security's assistant secretary in charge of immigration enforcement.
Swift is among 9,000 U.S. employers that voluntarily use a government-run database to check names and Social Security numbers of job applicants. But the system can detect only mismatches between the two pieces of information. It cannot flag the use by an illegal immigrant of someone else's actual name and Social Security number.
In fact, officials disclosed Wednesday, federal databases had nothing to do with discovering the identity theft among Swift's employees. ICE agents interviewing Swift employees suspected of committing other crimes began to notice that many were using stolen identities, and calls from Swift employees to tip lines further raised the government's interest.
One worker was accused of stealing the name and Social Security number of a man in Texas who believes his identity was stolen when he lost his wallet. Another used the identity of a woman who lost her purse, officials said. Workers also used stolen birth certificates from Puerto Rico, ICE said.
Chertoff calls on Congress to change law
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said federal data could have been used to spot the fraudulent use of those stolen identities, but federal law prevents it.
"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.
"I call on Congress 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," Chertoff said.
Federal officials also expressed some frustration with Swift for its actions leading up to the arrests. Court documents revealed that after the company was notified of the pending enforcement action, it did its own internal investigation. As a result, more than 400 workers quit or were fired, taking their potentially fraudulent documents with them.
The company says it has never condoned the employment of unauthorized workers or ever knowingly hired them.