A woman whose parents brought her to Iowa from Mexico 20 years ago at age 11 cannot be prosecuted by the state for identity theft and forgery, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled Friday.
The 4-3 divided court, in a significant ruling that could have broad consequences for those living in Iowa illegally and using fake credentials to obtain work, concluded prosecution of crimes such as identity theft and forgery when related to immigration fall under federal jurisdiction and cannot be prosecuted in state court.
"Local enforcement of laws regulating employment of unauthorized aliens would result in a patchwork of inconsistent enforcement that would undermine the harmonious whole of national immigration law," Justice Brent Appel wrote for the majority.
Martha Martinez, who is now 31, obtained an Iowa driver's license when she was 17 using a birth certificate and Social Security card borrowed from a woman named Diana Castaneda. She also used the fake credentials to obtain federal authorization to get a job in Muscatine at a company that provides sanitation services for food processing plants.
Martinez in 2013 received temporary lawful immigration status under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy implemented under President Barack Obama. She was able to obtain a driver's license under her real name and newly issued Social Security number provided through DACA.
However, the Iowa Department of Transportation, using facial recognition software, matched her face with the driver's license she obtained at 17 using Castaneda's credentials. After an investigation, Muscatine County Attorney Alan Ostergren charged her with the two felonies that upon conviction could get her deported.
The majority of the court said the federal government routinely chooses not to prosecute immigrants in similar situations as Martinez on humanitarian grounds, noting she was educated in Iowa, has no criminal record, is a productive member of the community and is the mother of four children born in Iowa.
"Federal enforcement officials might well weigh the fact that a mother would be separated from her four children who are United States citizens as a very undesirable result," the court said.
The justices also said federal authorities might blanch at prosecuting a person who in good faith came out of the shadows under protection of the DACA program.
The Obama policy offered a reprieve from deportation to people in the country illegally who could prove they arrived before they were 16, had been in the U.S. for several years and had not committed a crime since arriving. It gave so-called Dreamers an opportunity to stop hiding and live and work without fear of deportation. It's unclear, however, whether President Donald Trump plans to continue the same protections.
Ostergren said he firmly believes identity theft cases should be investigated and prosecuted.
He said the ruling means Iowa law enforcement will be powerless to prosecute some cases of identity theft.
"Quite frankly it puts Iowa as an outlier in the country so the question is if you are illegally here and you are stealing someone's identity then there's one state in the country you can move to and not be prosecuted right now," he said.
Martinez's attorney, Philip Mears, called the decision a tremendous victory for immigrants.
"The Iowa Supreme Court has recognized the important protection provided to Dreamers given their connection and tremendous contributions to the country they grew up in and call home," he said.
Justice Edward Mansfield and two other justices believe Martinez should be prosecuted. In his dissenting opinion Mansfield said the decision gives a pass from prosecution for immigrants living in Iowa illegally and using fake credentials, which could also be used to avoid paying taxes or to cover up a criminal history. An American citizen without the protections offered immigrants, however, could be prosecuted for the same crimes.
"Our job should not be to pick winners or losers but to apply federal law as given to us by Congress and state law as given to us by the general assembly," he said.
The Iowa attorney general's office has 90 days to decide whether to ask the U.S. Supreme Court to review the Iowa court decision. A spokesman said they are reviewing it and considering all options.