HARLINGEN, Texas – Asked by a federal judge why she sold her birth certificate, Rosie Medellin said she needed a few bucks and did not really think it through. Bobby Joe Flores said he sold his ID documents to buy drugs. Margarita Moya and her son did it to raise money for medicine for a loved one.
Their documents were destined for illegal immigrants.
In all, seven defendants pleaded guilty in Corpus Christi this past week to charges of selling their birth certificates and Social Security cards for $100 each. Seven other defendants pleaded guilty to buying or reselling those documents as part of a ring that sold documents to illegal immigrants seeking jobs in Dodge City, Kan.
The federal government's attention has been on stolen or fabricated identity documents, and officials say they know little about people who sell their own legitimate documents.
Defense attorneys said prosecution for selling an ID may be something new.
"I've been practicing criminal law for years and this is the first I've seen in our Southern District," said Grant Jones, who represents a roofer with sporadic employment. "If they've [the government] been aware in the past, they've now decided to enforce the law."
However, Jones said his client told him that document selling was a well-known way to earn a quick buck.
Prosecutors declined to talk about the case until a sentencing hearing in May before U.S. District Judge Hayden Head Jr. in Corpus Christi. The defendants face anywhere from probation to five years in prison.
Jones considers it just a twist on the more familiar cases of identity theft.
"Maybe 10, 15 years ago somebody had to come up with a new idea: Why steal them? Why not just buy them?" he said. "They pick out people who are in need, who don't care. You're a poor person living down in the barrio, some guy says 'Hey, listen, I'll give you a hundred dollars. The guy says 'OK, I need a hundred dollars."'
In this case, the defendants ended up with the cash — and a double holding a job in Kansas.
Government raids at meatpacking plants in six states in December stemmed from an investigation that uncovered up to 4,300 workers with questionable documentation.
Tim Counts, an Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokesman in Bloomington, Minn., said that investigation revealed documents were available for a price in places as open as Kmart parking lots. He said genuine documents were the most expensive, costing up to $1,500, and the most effective against detection.
"We don't have an all-inclusive picture of it," he said. "What we do have is evidence and information from individual cases. ... We definitely know it happens."
The issue also has turned up elsewhere.
In June, a man pleaded guilty in Concord, N.H., to selling five genuine Texas birth certificates and six Social Security cards to informants. Three years earlier, 10 people in Beardstown, Ill., were charged with receiving or transferring real documents that originated in Texas. In August 2002, a man in Green Bay, Wis., was charged with intent to sell documents including genuine Puerto Rican birth certificates and Social Security cards.
Department of Homeland Security spokesman Russ Knocke said there is not much specific information on the extent of the problem.
"Irrespective of the mode of identity theft, the issue itself is prevalent and it's something we're striking at very aggressively," Knocke said.