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Appeals Court Says Using Fake Social Security Number Doesn't Have To Mean Deportation

A federal appeals court in Chicago ruled this week that a woman living in the United States illegally should not face immediate deportation simply because she was convicted of using a false Social Security number to work.

A unanimous ruling by a three-judge panel of the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said that the government incorrectly labeled that offense "a crime of moral turpitude." Under immigration law, such a crime typically makes a noncitizen ineligible to seek relief from deportation.

But the judges said that while the government interprets a crime of moral turpitude to be "inherently base, vile, or depraved," an actual definition is never spelled out in the law.

The case involves Maria Eudofilia Arias who, without authorization, came to the United States from her native Ecuador in 2000. She went to work for an Indiana cabinet company, which judged her an "excellent employee." Arias got her job using a false Social Security number.

In 2010, Arias was charged with using fake documents. She pleaded guilty and was sentenced to the lightest penalty possible: one year of probation and a $100 fine. Then the government moved to deport her because an immigration judge ruled that her conviction was a crime of moral turpitude.

The appeals court said the immigration judge is wrong because falsely using a Social Security number isn't inherently base, vile or depraved.

"For example, hospitals and other health care providers often ask for patients' social security numbers. Would it be 'inherently base, vile, or depraved' for a person without a social security number to take a child who has fallen ill to a hospital and to give a false social security number to obtain treatment for her sick child, knowing she is ready, willing, and able to pay for the care? Not unless the terms 'base, vile, or depraved' have ceased to have any real meaning."

In a concurring opinion, Judge Richard Posner said the government's effort to prosecute and deport Arias "would be a waste of taxpayers' money." He wrote, "Has the Justice Department nothing better to do with its limited resources than prosecute a mouse? Has prosecutorial discretion flown out the window?"

The judges remanded the Arias case back to the Board of Immigration Appeals for reconsideration.

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Richard Gonzales is NPR's National Desk Correspondent based in San Francisco. Along with covering the daily news of region, Gonzales' reporting has included medical marijuana, gay marriage, drive-by shootings, Jerry Brown, Willie Brown, the U.S. Ninth Circuit, the California State Supreme Court and any other legal, political, or social development occurring in Northern California relevant to the rest of the country.