Commentary: Supreme Court strikes blow for immigrant rights

This editorial appeared in The Miami Herald.

A slam-dunk, 9-0 decision by the Supreme Court is as rare lately as a bipartisan vote on Capitol Hill. So when the justices issued a unanimous decision this week to ban the use of identify-theft laws to prosecute immigrants, it is clear that they found an indisputably flagrant abuse of the legal process. Was it ever.

Specifically, federal prosecutors were going after illegal immigrants by using laws designed to deter and punish identity thieves who intend to commit financial fraud. These laws define an offender as someone who "knowingly transfers, possesses, or uses, without lawful authority, a means of identification of another person." By applying "ordinary English grammar," Justice Stephen Breyer wrote, it was obvious that a guilty party must know that a false Social Security number he or she is using actually belongs to someone else.

That didn't matter to the prosecutors, though. What they like about the identity-theft law is that it carries a two-year prison term and could be used indiscriminately against any foreign worker carrying a false U.S. identity, whether or not it belonged to a real person. Thus, immigrants rounded up in workplace raids were threatened with a law that carried a harsher penalty – even though it involved a statute plainly written to deter a different crime – if they failed to plead guilty to lesser charges and accept deportation.

To be clear, workers caught in these raids can and will still be jailed and deported for carrying false IDs. But now that the Supreme Court has spoken, they no longer can be threatened with an aggravated penalty in an underhanded maneuver designed to get them to surrender their few legal rights.

To read the complete editorial, visit The Miami Herald.