Illegal immigrant caught using five-year-old's identity for work

BROOKFIELD -- Thousands of illegal immigrants are living in southeast Wisconsin.  Some of them are stealing other people's identities to get jobs.  A FOX6 investigation exposes a bustling black market for fake IDs that could put your family at risk.

Imagine learning that your five-year-old has a full time job!  That's what a Milwaukee mom discovered when she applied for state benefits.  The truth is, her little girl is a victim of identity theft.

Rebecca Morales found out about her daughter's phantom work history when she tried to apply for government benefits last year.  A state worker told her that Esperanza (who was seven) and Jacqueline (who was five) both had credit histories that showed substantial income.

"When I found out I told her, 'Where's my rent money?'" Morales now jokes.  "And she looked at me and said, 'Huh?  What mom?'"

But it was no laughing matter.  Brookfield police traced the identity theft to a Best Western hotel, where they found a maid using Jacqueline's name and social security number.

"They don't imagine how much they're hurting somebody when they're doing that," Morales says.  "I mean, for all I know, how do I know she didn't take out a house in my kid's name?"

The maid's real name is Maria Espino-Lopez.  Like an estimated 11 million others, she is living in the United States illegally.  In a Waukesha County courtroom last fall, her lawyer explained that Maria had escaped severe poverty in Mexico.

"She grew up living in homes with dirt floors, no windows or doors, no running water and no bed," said Elizabeth Murrar, Espino-Lopez's defense attorney.

It's not clear how she got little Jacqueline's information, but last June, a Waukesha County prosecutor charged her with felony identity theft. The charge was later reduced to a  misdemeanor in a plea agreement.  Her attorney says that leaves an avenue open for her to pursue future citizenship.

"I only came to find a better life and a better education for my son," Espino-Lopez told the court through an interpreter.

But it's what happened next that raises important questions about the state of illegal immigration in America.

"What she needs to do is leave and go back to whatever country she came from," says Ira Mehlman, media director for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, or FAIR.  FAIR advocates for the deportation of all illegal immigrants, regardless of the circumstances.  He blames the federal government for failing to enforce immigration laws.

"When they fail to enforce the law, they are creating victims," Mehlman says.  "They may not know precisely who those victims are, but as in the case of the five-year-old girl, there is a real victim and unfortunately there are many people just like her."

Christine Neumann-Ortiz, disagrees.

"I think the enforcement-only approach is a failure," she says.

She is director of Milwaukee's Voces de la Frontera, which leads an annual immigration march through the city.  She says that violent criminals should be removed, but that cracking down on those who are simply trying to make a living drives them further underground.

"The problem is you actually do create an incentive in the black market for more cases of identity theft," Neumann-Ortiz warns.

And FOX6's investigation finds that black market is booming.

Pablo Valesquez works private security at some of Milwaukee's hispanic night clubs, where he confiscates up to a dozen fake IDs every week.

"My personal favorite is the international drivers license," Valazquez quips.

Some of the IDs he sees are obvious hack jobs.  For instance, a recent customer flashed a vanity ID card that listed his home address on South "23th" Road.

But he gets other fake cardholders to tell him about places in Milwaukee and Chicago where you can go to get an authentic-looking ID or a real social security number for as little as $25, and Valazquez says they are using those IDs to get work.

Under the Obama administration, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement - or ICE - has made it a priority to deport convicted criminals, but only those who pose a "threat to public safety."

Identity thieves don't appear to fall into that priority category.

"I did not think about the consequences this could have in the future.  To Jacqueline Morales and also to my family," Espino-Lopez said during her sentencing.  " I only wanted to work to be able to help out my family."

The convicted identity thief spent nine days in a Waukesha County jail before returning to her south side Greenfield home.  She still drives a car without a valid license, and it's unclear if she's even been referred to ICE.

"It is simply unacceptable that she is going to get away with, not even a slap on the wrist," Mehlman complains.

You might be surprised how the victim's mother feels about that.

"I'm pretty sure it's stressful for her, for this Maria, to go through what she has to go through now," Morales says.  "Which, I honestly feel really bad."

Morales says she never wanted anyone to get kicked out of the country.

"I didn't want anything else to be pushed.  I just wanted her to realize you can't do that.  That's all I wanted," Morales said.

In an email to the FOX6 Investigators, a spokeswoman for ICE in Chicago writes:

"In a world of limited resources, ICE agents and officers are primarily focused on dangerous convicted criminals who present a threat to public safety.  An individual convicted of a misdemeanor theft, with no other serious criminal background, does not fall within ICE's enforcement priorities."