As someone who spent five years writing for the Dallas Morning News, I’m excruciatingly well acquainted with the Dallas Independent School District. Reporters with a taste for corruption, incompetence, and mismanagement see the scandal-ridden school district as a cornucopia of goodies.
There was the former superintendent who, in the late 1990s, used district money to buy furniture and wound up decorating a cell in federal prison. Last year, a similar scam surfaced involving lower-level officials who went on shopping sprees with district credit cards racking up thousands of transactions for personal items. And this year, after a colossal accounting error, district officials wound up having to lay off hundreds of teachers.
So until recently, if asked, I might have said I’d seen it all. Happily, I stand corrected.
Now the Dallas school district is coping with a scandal that could result in fines and prison time for multiple parties who had their hands in something that has the makings of a full-out criminal enterprise. What’s more, the latest scandal touches several cultural hot buttons at once: immigration, language, affirmative action, and bilingual education. Bundle them all together, and you get an idea for what’s happening in the Dallas school district.
The district has, for several years, been issuing fake Social Security numbers to foreign citizens — mostly teachers brought in on visas to teach bilingual classes. The idea was to cut through red tape and get these teachers on the payroll more quickly. The human resources department detected the practice last summer and discontinued the practice. District Superintendent Michael Hinojosa claims he didn’t catch wind of it until September when he received a report produced by an internal investigation. The inquiry started after district officials got a tip from someone at the Texas Education Agency, which is essentially the state education department.
According to the report, the bogus Social Security numbers were issued as a stopgap to expedite the hiring process. They were supposed to serve as temporary identification numbers until the employees received real Social Security numbers. Once employees got the real numbers, they were supposed to tell district officials so the fake ones could be replaced. In many cases, that didn’t happen.
Why would foreign employees do with two Social Security numbers — one fake, one real? Simple. They keep one and sell one. There’s a big international market for U.S. Social Security numbers. The customers are usually illegal immigrants, looking for a way in the United States once they arrive.
The investigation found no proof that the fake numbers were provided to the Teacher Retirement System, Internal Revenue Service, or Social Security Administration. But when investigators reviewed personnel files, they learned that the fake numbers were entered on forms issued by the Department of Homeland Security and the IRS. The forms don’t leave the district, but they are available to those federal agencies when requested.
District officials say they don’t know how many false numbers were issued. But the number could easily go into the thousands. It’s no wonder that both district officials and immigration lawyers have, in local media interviews, labeled the episode a “mess.”
It is that — and more. Whoever is responsible for this elaborate act of fraud violated any number of federal laws. The penalties include fines and prison time.
Fine. They deserve it. But don’t miss the big picture. At first glance, many people will jump to the conclusion that the district used the fake numbers to hire illegal immigrants. But if the employees had visas, they weren’t illegal — even if they later committed an illegal act by selling a Social Security number.
The real issue isn’t sexy, but it is terribly important. Some crafty individuals found yet another way to game the Social Security system — a practice in which, I suspect, employees and employers across America engage every day. That is what we need to crack down on. And until we do, we can’t get serious about immigration reform or homeland security because we won’t know who is coming or going.