BOSTON -- Daniel Polonia Morillo lived in the United States for years under someone else’s identity, using stolen documents belonging to a U.S. citizen from Puerto Rico to get food stamps, health care and other public benefits.
Polonia Morillo, a 57-year-old Dominican national who was living in Lawrence, pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court in Boston in August to using a stolen U.S. passport to fraudulently obtain more than $45,000 worth of Medicaid benefits and food stamps. He was sentenced to a year in prison and will be subject to deportation when released, federal prosecutors say.
His was among dozens of identity theft cases involving undocumented immigrants prosecuted by U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling’s office in the past two years.
Many of the cases involve Dominicans accused of stealing the identities of U.S. citizens in neighboring Puerto Rico to illegally gain entry into the United States.
And the city of Lawrence, with its sizable Dominican community, is a hot-spot for such cases, Lelling says.
“It’s a rampant problem,” Lelling said in an interview Friday. “There’s a limitless number of illegal Dominican immigrants coming into the Lawrence area and other parts of Massachusetts, who either bought or stole a Puerto Rican U.S. identity on the way here, or when they get here.”
“The problem is we have a lot of people here with fake IDs who are taking advantage of government services, whether it be health care or unemployment benefits,” he added.
Lelling said many of the stolen documents are bought in Puerto Rico, where they can be used to obtain a U.S. passport or other documents.
“There are active operations in Puerto Rico where you can just buy someone else’s identification,” he said. “They buy the name and Social Security number of an actual person, which they use to get an ID.”
Many of the investigations were conducted by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Document and Benefit Fraud Task Force, which investigates identity theft and welfare fraud among immigrants. The task force, created in 2006 under President Barack Obama, has operations in Boston and at least 10 other U.S. cities.
In July 2018, a sweep by the task force in Massachusetts involving state and local authorities netted 25 people on charges of identity theft and public benefit fraud. Among those arrested was Lopez Rosado, who escaped from prison in Puerto Rico in 1994 while serving a 40-year sentence for second degree murder, according to prosecutors.
Rosado was charged with using a stolen Social Security number to get a Massachusetts driver’s license and MassHealth benefits. He had been living in the country illegally for years prior to his arrest.
This past April, the task force arrested 11 people, including several in the Lawrence area, on charges of identity theft and stealing public funds.
In some instances, prosecutors haven’t been able to determine the actual identity of the suspects, Lelling said.
That was the case with an undocumented Dominican immigrant identified in court records only as “John Doe”, who was convicted and sentenced to three years in prison last month. He was charged with identity theft and stealing public funds for using the identity of a U.S. citizen from Puerto Rico for 40 years. The identity theft victim had died several years ago.
The Dominican man, who used the dead man’s Social Security number to collect unemployment benefits and live in subsidized housing, refused to reveal his identity during the trial, prosecutors said.
“Often, the reason why they won’t provide their actual identity, even after they’re arrested, is because they’ve done something particularly horrible that they haven’t been caught for,” Lelling said.
Some of the arrests for identity theft have been made as part of sweeps by federal immigration officials seeking people living in the country illegally.
Others stem from federal and state drug investigations where law enforcement agencies find suspects who’ve stolen other people’s identities in order to enter the country illegally, in addition to more serious crimes.
Lelling says Lawrence has become a hub for heroin and fentanyl traffickers who are exploiting the city’s location, depressed economy and large immigrant population to peddle the drugs throughout New England.
Federal, state and local law enforcement have made several high-profile busts in Lawrence over the past two years, many of which have involved fentanyl.
Last October, authorities broke up several fentanyl-dealing operations in the city, seizing more than 10 kilos of the deadly synthetic opioid -- enough to kill half of the state, according to federal officials.
President Donald Trump has also singled out the city, blasting it in a speech in Manchester, New Hampshire, last year as a main source of the drugs pouring into the Granite State.
Lelling said his office’s aggressive focus on Lawrence “isn’t to vilify everyone” who lives in the city.
“It just happens that there’s an overlap between drug trafficking, illegal immigration and identity theft,” he said. “It all gets mixed together in our enforcement in Lawrence, with the goal of making it a better place.”
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.