Bay State prisons and jails could be housing hundreds of illegal immigrants posing as legal citizens — raising the risk that criminals who should be deported could be released back into the United States, law enforcement officials say.
“On any given day there could be hundreds in jails across the state,” said Saugus police officer James Scott, who works with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials and trains law enforcement to identify illegal immigrants who’ve stolen legal identities to create fraudulent papers for themselves.
Convicts serving time using a legal citizen’s stolen identity can remain under the radar and avoid immigration enforcement officials, a fact that “exposes a hole in the system,” said Worcester Sheriff Lewis Evangelidis.
“If people are using legal identities when they are processed, that could be a loophole,” said Evangelidis, who noted that his staff use fingerprinting, biometrics and data from the FBI and Homeland Security to identify prisoners. But that may miss criminals who have only ever been arrested under their false names.
Bristol County Sheriff Thomas Hodgson said he believes there could be “plenty” of illegal immigrants using stolen identities in the Bristol County House of Correction, which is why he’s asked Scott to train his staff.
“We just don’t know how many there are, and that’s why we need this training,” said Hodgson. “If there are people who are using fraudulent identities in our custody, we need to make sure they’re handed over to immigration enforcement.”
Scott has trained law enforcement officials across New England in his “Identify the Impostor” course. His graduates have ferreted out hundreds of illegal immigrants who often obtain Massachusetts driver’s licenses using the date of birth and social security number of an unwitting legal citizen in Puerto Rico, he said, with several recent high-profile cases making headlines.
The Impostor program recently helped unmask one of Massachusetts’ most wanted sex offenders, who had served time in the Middleton House of Correction using a stolen identity.
Jhonny Pimental Aybar, a native of the Dominican Republic, was convicted in 2008 of sexually assaulting an 11-year-old girl in Salem. But he went through the court system — and his incarceration — as Caled M. Donatiu, purportedly a citizen from Puerto Rico, according to law enforcement officials.
Aybar was not deported upon his release, as a criminal foreign national normally would be, and also failed to register as a Level 3 sex offender upon release. Massachusetts State Police arrested him again last year.
“Someone sent him to me and we submitted him to the program. Just great results,” Scott wrote.
Federal officials charged Aybar with multiple counts of identity theft and misuse of a social security number on top of failing to register as a sex offender.
“We know that there are criminals in jail serving time under their stolen identities and then they get back out and they’re still using their stolen identities,” said state Rep. Shauna O’Connell (R-Taunton), who helped connect Scott and Hodgson.
State Department of Correction officials could not immediately be reached for comment last night.
Hodgson said the training could also root out potential terrorists.
“That’s our job as sheriffs, to protect the public,” he said. “We don’t want to put people back on the street that don’t belong there.”