Milwaukee Officer Found To Be Illegal Immigrant

By Kari Lydersen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 18, 2007

MILWAUKEE -- Fellow Milwaukee police officers knew him as Jose Morales.

But after an anonymous phone tip this winter, an investigation revealed that the Morales in question is actually dead, and the officer is a cousin, Oscar Ayala-Cornejo, 24. He is an illegal immigrant from Mexico who had assumed Morales's identity as a high school student in 1999.

In court papers filed June 15, Ayala-Cornejo agreed to plead guilty to a federal felony charge of falsely claiming to be a U.S. citizen. Under the plea agreement, he will face six to 12 months in jail. The charges can carry up to three years in prison and a $250,000 fine. Ayala-Cornejo has agreed to leave the United States after his jail term. A sentencing date has not been set.

The police department suspended Ayala-Cornejo from his job after he was arrested on May 30 and has now taken him off the payroll. Brother Alexander Ayala, 26, a U.S. citizen who is an officer in the same South Milwaukee district, has been placed on administrative duty. Police are reportedly investigating who else may have known about Ayala-Cornejo's identity.

John Balcerzak, president of the Milwaukee Police Association labor union, said the incident shows that the department should beef up its background-check process.

"This is a wake-up call to our department and departments around the country," he said. "When I was hired 20 years ago, they went to old neighbors and high school teachers. People are really concerned he was able to do this, and they feel let down by him."

Department spokeswoman Anne E. Schwartz declined to comment.

Ayala-Cornejo had documentation of his assumed identity, including a driver's license. He attended one high school using his given name, then switched to another school where he enrolled as Morales and graduated in 2001. That yearbook shows his picture with Morales's name. Ayala-Cornejo could not be reached to comment.

Ayala-Cornejo joined the police department as an aide in 2001. He became an officer in December 2004 and in 2005 was assigned to District 2, a heavily Latino area on the city's South Side, which is also home to many residents of German and Polish descent.

Latino leaders note that working under someone else's identity is common practice for many of the estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants in the United States.

"Their personhood is not recognized since they don't have the right piece of paper, but they're working and they're not harming anyone," said Arnaldo Garcia, enforcement and justice program coordinator of the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights. "It's very typical that a citizen daughter would lend her Social Security number to her mother so she can work or cousins would use the same driver's license if they look alike. The problem is that the system is set up to criminalize people for working."

At a Mass devoted to Ayala-Cornejo at St. Adalbert's Catholic Church on June 3, several fellow officers and relatives described him as hardworking and devoted to his community.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2007 The Washington Post Company