Use of Tax Records in Colorado Immigrant Probe Questioned

By Ivan Moreno
Associated Press
Monday, June 1, 2009

GREELEY, Colo. -- Immigrant advocates say they have seen nothing like it: thousands of confidential tax records from an income tax preparer seized by a prosecutor looking for illegal immigrants in this northern Colorado city.

The October seizures led to charges of identity theft and criminal impersonation against more than 70 people. Prosecutors allege that as many as 1,300 suspected illegal immigrants were working using false or stolen Social Security numbers.

But the American Civil Liberties Union said the probe was the "equivalent of a house-by-house search of innocent homeowners in order to find a suspect believed to be somewhere in the neighborhood."

Two judges have agreed, ruling that Weld County District Attorney Ken Buck had no probable cause to seize the records. Buck is appealing, and a ruling in his favor could open up a new avenue for prosecuting illegal immigrants.

The charges have been ironic for immigrants such as Horacio Arturo Cervantes, 42. The father of four from the Mexican state of Chihuahua said he had been honest about paying taxes, even though he was in the country illegally, because he was hoping for a path to U.S. citizenship.

Cervantes pleaded guilty to identity theft before the judges' rulings and now faces deportation. He said he offered the plea because he wanted to get out of jail and try his chances in immigration court.

"I feel like I'm up in the air, not knowing what's going on, just with a desire to stay here," he said. His next court date is June 23.

Buck's investigation, dubbed Operation Numbers Game, marked the first time a prosecutor used tax records to charge illegal immigrants with identity theft, according to the ACLU and the Los Angeles-based National Immigration Law Center. Officials with both groups said they knew of no prosecutor who has since tried it.

Buck's probe triggered a conundrum: The people charged allegedly are in the country illegally and were fraudulently using Social Security numbers. But the Internal Revenue Service requires them to pay taxes, and those records are confidential.

Buck declined to be interviewed for this article because of pending appeals. But in a February interview, he argued: "If you're in this country illegally, and you're working in this country illegally, there may be a requirement that you pay taxes but it's kind of ridiculous."

Buck has argued that the records are not confidential because they were seized not from the IRS but from the tax preparer.

The investigation started after a Texas man alerted Weld County authorities that his identity was being used. The suspect in that case told authorities he had filed his taxes with Amalia's Translation and Tax Services, a business widely used by immigrants in Greeley, where one-third of the population is Hispanic.

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