By Gene Johnson / Associated Press
SEATTLE — A former chief counsel for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Seattle was sentenced Thursday to four years in prison for stealing the identities of people facing deportation and using them to run up bills totaling $190,000.
Raphael Sanchez, 44, resigned when he was charged in the four-year scheme in February. He had overseen deportation proceedings in Alaska, Idaho, Oregon and Washington since 2011 as the agency’s top lawyer in the region.
“Sanchez was entrusted with significant authority to represent the United States in crucial immigration proceedings that deeply shaped the lives of many,” attorneys Luke Cass and Jessica Harvey, of the Justice Department’s public integrity section, wrote in a sentencing memo to the court. “Sanchez abandoned the principles he swore to uphold and used his authority merely as a vehicle for personal profit.”
As part of a deal in which Sanchez pleaded guilty to wire fraud and aggravated identity theft, prosecutors and Sanchez’s attorney, Cassandra Stamm, agreed to recommend a four-year prison term.
U.S. District Judge Robert S. Lasnik accepted that recommendation, noting the “shocking exploitation” Sanchez committed and the speed with which he accepted responsibility, volunteering to begin serving his time even before he was sentenced.
Stamm blamed the crimes on her client’s self-destructive tendencies, such as dangerously abusing sleeping pills, which she suggested stem from his “horrific history of childhood trauma” that included being brought up by a violent, alcoholic father.
He “made choices that sabotaged everything good in his life,” she said, and stole money he didn’t really need to buy things he didn’t really want.
Tracy Short, ICE’s principal legal adviser, said in a written statement that the agency’s employees are held to the highest standards of professional conduct.
“Individuals who violate the public’s trust will face consequences for their actions, as Mr. Sanchez did in this case,” Short said. “Corruption will not be tolerated.”
In an interview with court officials prior to his sentencing, Sanchez, who was due to make $162,000 this year, said he struggled with money troubles, depression, fatigue and a failed relationship before launching into his scheme.
“It became a perfect storm that did not allow me to see the hurtfulness and wrongfulness of my actions,” he said. “I pretended I needed no one and thought material things would bring me happiness, even if temporarily. I created an intricate, beautiful, yet soul-less house of cards that suddenly came crashing down.”
He apologized for his crimes in court Thursday and told the judge he’s relieved to be in custody: “The stress is gone,” he said.
Sanchez’s scheme ran from late 2013 to late last year. He took personal information about at least seven people who had been or could be deported from immigration files and then forged identification documents, such as Social Security cards and driver’s licenses, in their names. Sometimes, he used a picture of a murder victim that had appeared in a newspaper as an identification photo.
He used the forged IDs to obtain lines of credit and credit-monitoring services to determine which of his victims had the best credit. He also listed three victims as dependents on his income tax returns.
The victims’ status as deportable — or in some cases having already left the country — made it less likely they’d discover and report the fraud, prosecutors said.
Before moving to Seattle, Sanchez worked with an ICE unit tasked with tracking down human rights violators and war criminals, Stamm said.
He was involved in the 2010 deportation of Juan Miguel Mendez, who was wanted for torture, disappearances and killings from 1976 to 1979 during Argentina’s “dirty war.”
Sanchez is the second lawyer in ICE’s Seattle office to run into legal trouble in recent years. Jonathan Love pleaded guilty in 2016 to a charge that he forged documents in an effort to deprive an immigrant of the legal permanent resident status to which he was entitled.