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Top Seattle ICE attorney pleads guilty to identity theft of immigrants

Sketch by Peter Millett
ICE attorney Raphael Sanchez pleaded guilty to charges on Thursday at the U.S. District Court in Seattle.

Update 2/15/18, 12:30 p.m.

Raphael Sanchez pleaded guilty Thursday to charges of a wire fraud and aggravated identity theft scheme involving the stolen identities of numerous people. The plea recommends a four-year sentence and restitution paid to victims. A judge will decide sentencing in May.

In court, Sanchez admitted to using ICE databases to steal the personal information of immigrants with pending federal cases, some who faced deportation. He also admitted to defrauding banks of more than $190,000, and that he claimed three of the identity theft victims as relative dependents on his personal tax return.

Original Story:

The former top attorney with Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Seattle is scheduled to address criminal charges against him in court Thursday. Federal prosecutors accuse him of stealing the identities of immigrants in order to make fraudulent credit card purchases.

The fraud started more than four years ago, according to charging documents from the Department of Justice.

The charges are against Raphael Sanchez. He was chief counsel at the Seattle office of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Prosecutors allege he stole the identities of seven people with pending immigration cases and used their information to open credit cards and make purchases.

Matt Adams is another Seattle attorney who knows Sanchez.

“I do. We’ve met on several occasions,” Adams said.

They’re not exactly buddies. A couple years ago, Adams brought a complaint against one of Sanchez’s employees for forging evidence. That ICE attorney, Jonathan Love, pleaded guilty.

“And so now you have the chief of the office also facing corruption charges … it’s really mind-boggling,” said Adams, legal director of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project.

Sanchez faces charges of aggravated identity theft and wire fraud. That carries a sentence of up to 22 years.

Court documents provide few details about the alleged fraud or the potential victims. But there’s one example of an email sent from Sanchez’s Yahoo account that contained a different person’s utility bill, image of a U.S. permanent residency card and a page from a Chinese passport. It's unknown if the alleged victims still reside in the U.S. or if some were deported.

[asset-images[{"caption": "Information included in charging documents filed February 12, 2018 in U.S. District Court show few details of how Sanchez allegedly defrauded banks.", "fid": "142687", "style": "placed_wide", "uri": "public://201802/EXAMPLE.jpg", "attribution": "Credit U.S. Department of Justice"}]]

[asset-images[{"caption": "ICE attorney Raphael Sanchez listed his home address as the aliens' residences on account paperwork. Sanchez's home at 3516 S. Webster Street #A is shown here on Thursday, February 15, 2018, in Seattle. ", "fid": "142712", "style": "placed_wide", "uri": "public://201802/MF_ICE01_0.jpg", "attribution": "Credit KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer "}]]The filing states Sanchez defrauded several financial institutions, including American Express, CitiBank and Capital One.

One ironic twist in all this relates back to the forgery case and Sanchez’s role as that came to light within ICE’s office.

“As I understand it [Sanchez] was responsible then for determining what type of investigation they would do to see if there were other instances of people who’d been defrauded,” Adams recalled.

It turns out, at the same time Sanchez was responsible to look into this fraud by his employees, he was allegedly years deep into a fraud of his own.

Back then, some said that forgery case had no legal precedent.

“I’ve never heard of a case like this before,” said Federal Appellate Judge John Owens during a 2017 hearing related to the forgery case.

“In this country at least, I’ve never heard of a government officer falsifying a document to get someone thrown out of the country,” Owens said. “I’ve just never heard of that before.”

And now, here’s Sanchez, who’s higher up ICE’s org chart and the charges are far more serious.

Officials with ICE and the Justice Department have so far declined to comment. Sanchez resigned on Monday.

For Adams, there’s an easy answer as to why these immigrants allegedly became targets.

“They're vulnerable," Adams said. "It’s very unlikely that they’re going to be able to come back and say, hey, all of the sudden my credit went south. Or what's this charge on my account?”

It becomes especially hard to follow up, Adams said, once someone is deported.

Year started with KUOW: 2006