Feds arrest undocumented immigrants who stole identities of hurricane-hit Puerto Ricans to get benefits

Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Thursday announced charges against 28 people, most of them undocumented immigrants, for stealing the identities of U.S. citizens to illegally receive government benefits.

Sessions said 22 of the individuals were undocumented Dominican Republic nationals who stole the identities of mostly Puerto Ricans who had been displaced by Hurricane Maria last September. They used stolen Social Security numbers and other documents to get government benefits, such as Medicaid and federally subsidized housing in Massachusetts.

"Two people, same name, same numbers. One in Puerto Rico and one in Massachusetts receiving Medicaid benefits," Sessions said. "In some cases, both people with the same identity were receiving medical services on the same day, in both jurisdictions, 1,600 miles apart."

In some cases, he added, the individuals who committed the identity theft also obtained driver's licenses and registered to vote.

Sessions announced the charges in Boston with U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling, who said 21 of the individuals charged had been arrested and are in federal or state custody. He also said that several people charged are undergoing processing for deportation.

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The most devastating images of the humanitarian crisis in Puerto Rico
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The most devastating images of the humanitarian crisis in Puerto Rico
COROZAL, PUERTO RICO - SEPTEMBER 27: Luis Lugo and Awilda Valdez bath in spring water since they have no running water in their home since Hurricane Maria passed through on September 27, 2017 in Corozal, Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico experienced widespread, severe damage including most of the electrical, gas and water grids as well as agricultural destruction after Hurricane Maria, a category 4 hurricane, passed through. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
MOROVIS, PUERTO RICO - SEPTEMBER 27: Hector Ojeda and Sonia Robles and Tony Ojeda cross a river on foot after the bridge was washed away when Hurricane Maria passed through on September 27, 2017 in Morovis, Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico experienced widespread damage including most of the electrical, gas and water grid as well as agriculture after Hurricane Maria, a category 4 hurricane, passed through. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
MOROVIS, PUERTO RICO SEPTEMBER 25: A man helps a kid cross the San Lorenzo River in Morovis. Residents of San Lorenzo neighborhood can't access their houses because the river destroyed the bridge that communicate them with the main road of access. The mountain town of Morovis, in the south west of San Juan, is one of the most affected after the pass of Hurricane Mar�. Hurricane Maria passed through Puerto Rico leaving behind a path of destruction across the national territory. (Photo by Dennis M. Rivera Pichardo for The Washington Post via Getty Images)
Maria Martinez stands next to her house which was damaged by Hurricane Maria in Yabucoa in eastern Puerto Rico on September 28, 2017. A week after the Category Four storm stuck, the White House said US President Donald Trump had made it easier for fuel and water supplies to arrive to the ravaged island of 3.4 million US citizens. / AFP PHOTO / HECTOR RETAMAL (Photo credit should read HECTOR RETAMAL/AFP/Getty Images)
SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO - SEPTEMBER 28, 2017: After eight hours in line, Solymlar Duprey, age 47, holds her daughter Miabella Lawston, age 5, as they try to get on an evacuation cruise ship leaving San Juan. 'The situation is so critical. There is no electricity, fuel, water,' said Duprey. She was trying to locate her confirmation number to board the cruise ship. A Royal Caribbean cruise ship is evacuating over 2,000 people from Puerto Rico, St. John, and St. Thomas free of charge. People are attempting to get off of the island as lack of fuel, electricity and running water has crippled Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. (Photo by Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
Maria Olivieri removes a tree branch from her backyard a week after the passage of Hurricane Maria in Aibonito, Puerto Rico, on September 27, 2017. The US island territory, working without electricity, is struggling to dig out and clean up from its disastrous brush with the hurricane, blamed for at least 33 deaths across the Caribbean. / AFP PHOTO / Ricardo ARDUENGO (Photo credit should read RICARDO ARDUENGO/AFP/Getty Images)
COROZAL, PUERTO RICO - SEPTEMBER 27: Irma Maldanado stands with Sussury her parrot in what is left of her home that was destroyed when Hurricane Maria passed through on September 27, 2017 in Corozal, Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico experienced widespread damage including most of the electrical, gas and water grid as well as agriculture after Hurricane Maria, a category 4 hurricane, passed through. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
Residents with gas canisters wait for fuel after Hurricane Maria in the Miramar neighborhood of San Juan, Puerto Rico, on Tuesday, Sept. 26, 2017. President�Donald Trump�said he will travel to Puerto Rico to survey damage. He told reporters that the federal government is 'doing a really good job' in relief efforts and has shipped 'massive amounts' of food and water. Photographer: Alex Wroblewski/Bloomberg via Getty Images
A vehicle drives through streets filled with floodwater near destroyed homes from Hurricane Maria in this aerial photograph taken above Barrio Obrero in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on Monday, Sept. 25, 2017. Hurricane Maria hit the Caribbean island last week, knocking out electricity throughout the island. The territory is facing weeks, if not months, without service as utility workers repair�power�plants and lines that were already falling apart. Photographer: Alex Wroblewski/Bloomberg via Getty Images
AIBONITO, PUERTO RICO - SEPTEMBER 24: People wait in line for water as they wait for gas, electrical and water grids to be repaired September 24, 2017 in Aibonito, Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico experienced widespread damage after Hurricane Maria, a category 4 hurricane, passed through. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
Customers stand in line outside a grocery store in the town of Dorado, west of San Juan, Puerto Rico, on Thursday, Sept. 28, 2017. Trump�ordered the Jones Act to be waived for shipments to hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico immediately�at the request of Governor�Ricardo Rossello, White House press secretary�Sarah Sanders�said Thursday. Photographer: Alex Wroblewski /Bloomberg via Getty Images
SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO SEPTEMBER 22: Power lines and fallen trees block a sidewalk at the University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras campus, after Hurricane Maria at Ponce de Leon Avenue in San Juan, Puerto Rico on September 22, 2017. (Photo by Pablo Pantoja/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO - SEPTEMBER 25: Yancy Leon who has been waiting in line for two days to get an American Airlines flight out of the Luis Munoz Marin International Airport continues to wait as she tries to escape the conditions after Hurricane Maria passed through the island on September 25, 2017 in San Juan Puerto Rico. Some of the people have waited days at the airport in hope of getting onto a plane after Hurricane Maria, a category 4 hurricane, passed through. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
Workers fix a light fixture at the San Jorge Children's Hospital in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on Thursday, Sept. 28, 2017. Trump�ordered the Jones Act to be waived for shipments to hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico immediately�at the request of Governor�Ricardo Rossello, White House press secretary�Sarah Sanders�said Thursday. Photographer: John Taggart /Bloomberg via Getty Images
Travelers stand in line outside of Luis Muoz Marn International Airport after Hurricane Maria disrupted flight service in San Juan, Puerto Rico on Wednesday, Sept. 27, 2017. President�Donald Trump�said he may temporarily suspend a law that restricts the use of foreign ships operating in U.S. waters and between U.S. ports in order to accelerate the delivery of aid to Puerto Rico, where his administration faces mounting criticism over its response to Hurricane Maria. Photographer: Alex Wroblewski/ Bloomberg
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Those arrested face two years in federal prison.

Sessions said federal and state investigators analyzed Medicaid benefit payments and noticed suspicious activity. Investigators then discovered more than 110 cases of people with the same name and same Social Security number, he said.

Officials did not reveal how the individuals were able to steal the personal information. Representatives for the U.S. Attorney's office and the Department of Justice did not immediately return a request for comment.

In one instance, Sessions said, a Puerto Rican affected by the hurricane attempted to apply for government housing but was told they were already receiving it in Massachusetts.

"These government programs are intended to help the poor, the elderly, American citizens — not those who are trespassing in the country," Sessions said. "This kind of fraud is a theft from our seniors, a theft from our taxpayers and theft from the needy, a theft from America."

Sessions said the case was a part of operation "Double Trouble," a task force his office is leading in conjunction with U.S. attorneys across the country to crack down on those committing document and benefit fraud, particularly undocumented immigrants.

"We are an open, generous nation," Sessions said. "Accepting illegal immigration, however, would be a disservice to the legal immigrants who played by the rules, waited their turn, respected our laws, our customs and our way of life."

He added, "You do not get to come to America unlawfully. Let's just make that clear. This system is built on making your application and waiting your turn, and not all of those who are here illegally have committed additional crimes, but many have."

At the press conference, law enforcement officials said 28 people had been arrested; a DOJ press release about the arrests said 25. DOJ could not immediately resolve the discrepancy.

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