EASTON—Instead of punishing 27 illegal immigrants, a Northampton County judge complimented them and set them free.
The immigrants were arrested Oct. 27 for using false or stolen Social Security numbers to get jobs with Rapp Brothers Pallet Services in Williams Township.
After spending a week in Northampton County Prison, the men pleaded guilty Wednesday to tampering with public records. Fourteen of them also pleaded guilty to identity theft.
Northampton County Judge Leonard N. Zito acknowledged it was wrong for them to use false Social Security numbers, but said their crimes warranted no punishment because they broke the law to earn a living.
“I see gentlemen who are here illegally strictly for the purpose of working,” Zito said, adding it is a “sad day” for the country when prosecutors arrest men for trying to make better lives for themselves and their families.
Northampton County District Attorney John Morganelli has spoken out repeatedly against immigration-related crimes. In an interview Wednesday afternoon, he said Zito’s decision won’t stop him from arresting more illegal immigrants.
“I am going to continue to arrest them and bring them before the judge,” Morganelli said. “I can’t tell the judges what to do at sentencing. I quite frankly think identity theft is a serious problem.”
The men were chained together in court in three groups of nine. Sheriffs’ deputies didn’t have enough leg shackles on hand, so the third group of nine men was bound together with handcuffs.
Northampton County Court Administrator James Onembo said the 27 men were forced to sleep in beds set up in the prison gymnasium because of overcrowding. Prison officials estimated it cost $14,000 to house the 27 inmates for one week.
In court Wednesday, Assistant District Attorney Jay Jenkins asked Zito to sentence each man to 30 days in prison to send a message to other illegal immigrants that it is wrong to steal Social Security numbers. He told Zito not to put the men on probation, calling that punishment “a waste of resources.”
Jenkins could not ask Zito to deport the men because that decision lies with federal authorities. The men will likely receive notices to appear before a federal immigration judge, according to Manny Van Pelt, a spokesman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
“If a judge issues them a final order of removal, absolutely they will be removed,” Van Pelt said after the hearing. “Our agency takes a zero-tolerance stance against fraudulent identification.”
Fernando Trevino, who handles criminal matters for the office of the Mexican Consulate in Philadelphia, said in court that immigrants involved in a similar case were ordered by an immigration judge to leave the United States within two months.
That type of decision could allow the 27 men to assume new fake identities, get new jobs and remain in the area, according to prosecutors. And the men won’t receive notice to appear in immigration court if authorities don’t have their real addresses.
Morganelli said federal immigration authorities need to do a better job removing illegal immigrants.
“They talk out of one side of their mouth to the press and the other side of their mouth to us,” he said. “They don’t want to do anything.”
Van Pelt said that if the men abscond from immigration court, there are checks in place to find them if they apply for a job, open a bank account or apply for government benefits. Background information, photographs and fingerprints of illegal immigrants are stored in federal databases, he said.
The 27 men should have had their images and fingerprints stored in a database, although Van Pelt wasn’t sure if they were because the investigation that led to their capture was solely conducted by local authorities.
He urged Morganelli to work with federal authorities rather than criticize them. Together they can go after not only illegal residents but also the companies that hire them. Morganelli said federal authorities have refused to work with him.
“I would be thrilled if they wanted to cooperate, but generally, they don’t want to,” Morganelli said. “They don’t do a damn thing. They just talk. There’s no action.”
Mary Lou Fuad, an Easton woman who translated for some of the men’s families, said prior to the hearing that five of the 27 men are in the process of becoming legal residents. One received his paperwork Tuesday, she said.
Morganelli said they were all illegally in the United States when they were arrested. They all admitted they stole or made up Social Security numbers, regardless of their legal residency status, he said.
When Zito asked the men how they came to work for Rapp Brothers, some said through a translator that they heard about the jobs through word of mouth. They said they are paid by check and have Social Security and unemployment funds deducted from their checks.
Zito wondered what became of the money deducted for those purposes. Public defender Dwight Danser recommended that if the men seek employment in the future, they should do it as sub-contractors or should accept cash to avoid having the funds deducted. Zito said that would be illegal.
Court papers say 23 of the men came from Mexico, two came from Honduras, one came from Ecuador and one came from El Salvador. They had addresses in Easton and Allentown, documents say.
Regarding Zito’s sentencing decision and compliments to the offenders, Van Pelt said: “I can certainly understand the judge’s desire to be compassionate, but with respect to immigration law, once these people are afforded due process and if an immigration judge orders them deported, we will remove them from the United States.”