Court: State can't prosecute Muscatine immigrant for identity theft

It's up to the federal government to enforce such matters, justices hold

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DES MOINES — A Muscatine woman, brought illegally to the United States when she was 11, cannot be prosecuted for using false documents to obtain employment, a divided Iowa Supreme Court ruled Friday.

The court, in the 4-3 ruling, held that federal immigration law prevents state prosecution of crimes, like identity theft and forgery, when it is connected to immigration matters overseen by the federal government — a ruling with wide ramifications for immigrants working in Iowa under false names.

The charges against Martha Martinez, now 31, stem from Martinez using a fictitious driver’s license and Social Security card in 2013 to obtain employment at Packer Sanitation in Muscatine County.

It was the same year she received temporary lawful immigration status through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, a federal program protecting children from deportation who were brought to the United States illegally.

That change in status made Martinez eligible, under Iowa law, to obtain an Iowa driver’s license and Social Security card in her own name.

In 2014, Martinez was charged with identity theft and forgery after applying for a driver’s license because the Iowa Department of Transportation’s facial recognition software recognized that Martinez, as a teenager, had applied for a state identification card under a false name.

Martinez, who was 17 when she obtained the driver’s license, used a birth certificate in name of Diana Castaneda, a person with a Social Security number.

Martinez’s attorney, Philip Mears, called the decision a tremendous victory for immigrants.

“The Iowa Supreme Court has recognized the important protection provided to Dreamers given their connection and tremendous contributions to the country they grew up in and call home,” he told the Des Moines Register.

Rita Bettis, legal director of the ACLU of Iowa, said in a statement federal immigration law “makes clear that state and local officials may not regulate the employment of noncitizens in that manner.”

After Martinez was charged, her lawyer filed a motion to dismiss the charges, arguing that federal law pre-empted her prosecution on the two state charges. A district court denied that motion, but she appealed.

The justices in Friday’s ruling referred to the case as a classic demonstration of why “pre-emption (of federal law) is necessary.”

It stated that laws regulating employment of illegal immigrants, if enforced locally, would result in a “patchwork of inconsistent enforcement that would undermine the harmonious whole of national immigration law,” Justice Brent Appel wrote in the majority opinion.

That ruling noted that Martinez came to the United States as a child in 1997, an “illegal entry” that wasn’t her responsibility. She was educated in Iowa schools, has no criminal record and now has four children who are U.S. citizens. These are facts that federal immigration authorities routinely take into account, and they might consider it an “undesirable result” if a mother was deported and separated from her four children, the ruling stated.

In a dissenting opinion, Associate Justice Edward Mansfield wrote that under this ruling, an American citizen who works in Iowa under a false name to avoid a bill collector can be prosecuted, but a foreign national who works under a false name to avoid detection is immune.

“This is the wrong reading of federal pre-emption,” Mansfield wrote.

Mansfield argued the district court was correct in ruling the identity theft and forgery are state crimes “independent” of Martinez’s immigration status. The state’s “sole interest” is to protect citizens from identity theft and to protect employers from those using false names and names of individuals whose identities they have stolen to gain employment, the district court ruled.

Mansfield said the Friday ruling will apply to all illegal immigrants who use a false identity to work in Iowa. An illegal worker using an alias to avoid paying taxes or to cover up a criminal history also will “reap the benefit of today’s decision.”

“At the same time, an American citizen, who is just as sympathetic as Martinez, will not benefit from today’s decision,” Mansfield wrote. “Our job should not be to pick winners or losers but to apply federal law as given to us by Congress and state law as given to us by the General Assembly.”

l Comments: (319) 398-8318; trish.mehaffey@thegazette.com

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