Identity theft adds gravity to meat plant worker raids

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

It was a heart-wrenching scene any time of year, but especially at Christmas.

Children held at school because their parents were taken into custody. Concerned husbands, wives and other family members huddled outside the fence, wondering when their loved ones were coming home, if ever.

Others shouted legal advice through the chain-link barrier: "Don't sign any papers!"

Tuesday's Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids, at Swift & Co. plants in Grand Island and five other cities were custom-made for superficial media coverage -- hard-working immigrants seeking a better life for themselves and their families, doing work many native Americans wouldn't lower themselves to. Heartless ICE officials bussing workers to deportation while their children are caught in the lurch.

But a second look reveals a more sinister side.

Not only were the workers allegedly here illegally, they were believed to be working through the use of stolen Social Security numbers of hundreds of U.S. citizens and lawful residents.

Ironically, they were probably doing so because Swift & Co. had tightened its standards, participating since 1997 in a pilot program to determine whether Social Security numbers are valid.

But shouldn't the meatpacker be expected to scrutinize new hires closely?

Yes, but not too closely, according to the government.

In 2001, the Department of Justice's Special Counsel for Unfair Immigration-Related Employment Practices brought a complaint against Swift & Co. of an alleged "pattern and practice" of document-based discrimination against job applicants. It wanted to fine the company $2.5 million, but settled for about $200,000.

Employers like Swift & Co. are walking a tight rope, trying to comply with residency requirements without violating potential employees' privacy.

We understand the concern about privacy, and it's an important right for the government to preserve.

But anyone who discovers that someone else has been using his Social Security number will have significant concerns of his own.

It's easy to look the other way when we know someone may be working in this country illegally.

It's quite another when they do it masquerading as us.

Identity theft, with its potential for creating years of financial mayhem, is nothing to be taken lightly.

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