Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Thursday announced charges against 28 people, most of them undocumented immigrants, for stealing the identities of U.S. citizens to illegally receive government benefits.
Sessions said 22 of the individuals were undocumented Dominican Republic nationals who stole the identities primarily of Puerto Ricans and used stolen Social Security numbers and other documents to get government benefits, such as Medicaid and federally subsidized housing in Massachusetts.
"Two people, same name, same numbers. One in Puerto Rico and one in Massachusetts receiving Medicaid benefits," Sessions said. "In some cases, both people with the same identity were receiving medical services on the same day, in both jurisdictions, 1,600 miles apart."
In most cases, the identities of the victims were stolen years prior to Hurricane Maria, which hit the island last September. In a few cases, the identities were stolen in 2017, days or months after the hurricane, according to court documents. The victims often became aware of their identity being stolen after being displaced by the hurricane and applying for federal aid, documents show.
In some cases, he added, the individuals who committed the identity theft also obtained driver's licenses and registered to vote.
Sessions announced the charges in Boston with U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling, who said 21 of the individuals charged had been arrested and are in federal or state custody. He also said that several people charged are undergoing processing for deportation.
Those arrested face two years in federal prison.
Sessions said federal and state investigators analyzed Medicaid benefit payments and noticed suspicious activity. Investigators then discovered more than 110 cases of people with the same name and same Social Security number, he said. Officials and court documents did not reveal how the individuals were able to steal the personal information.
In one instance, Sessions said, a Puerto Rican affected by the hurricane attempted to apply for government housing but was told they were already receiving it in Massachusetts.
"These government programs are intended to help the poor, the elderly, American citizens — not those who are trespassing in the country," Sessions said. "This kind of fraud is a theft from our seniors, a theft from our taxpayers and theft from the needy, a theft from America."
Sessions said the case was a part of operation "Double Trouble,” a task force his office is leading in conjunction with U.S. attorneys across the country to crack down on those committing document and benefit fraud, particularly undocumented immigrants.
“We are an open, generous nation," Sessions said. "Accepting illegal immigration, however, would be a disservice to the legal immigrants who played by the rules, waited their turn, respected our laws, our customs and our way of life."
He added, "You do not get to come to America unlawfully. Let's just make that clear. This system is built on making your application and waiting your turn, and not all of those who are here illegally have committed additional crimes, but many have."