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Two women, one ID and plenty of problems
By Cindy Gonzalez, Staff Writer, Omaha World-Herald
Published: Friday, November 22, 2002

In Maria Delgadillo's view, she was just buying the opportunity to work.

The undocumented immigrant needed to support her children - including an infant still breast-feeding - so she apparently paid a crook for a Social Security number that would land her a job as a hotel maid.

What Delgadillo didn't know is that the identification belonged to an Omaha mother raising her own two children just miles away.

In the view of the real Barbara Vidlak, who spent dizzying days tracking down her impostor, "This is bull."

"I have to pay for a credit check," Vidlak said. "I lose wages to go to court. I can't sleep. It's stressing me and my kids."

This week, the two 34-year-old women who for months worked and paid taxes under the same name crossed paths in Douglas County Court, where Delgadillo was accused of identity theft.

That misdemeanor charge is still pending, but the Immigration and Naturalization Service is moving swiftly to deport the Mexican native.

Tears flowed down Delgadillo's cheeks as she was returned, in ankle cuffs, to the cell that for more than a week has kept her from nursing her baby.

Vidlak stared from only inches away, finding it hard to sympathize with a situation that stole her sense of security.

It's a frustrating scenario, immigrant advocates say, fueled by an economy that depends on a foreign-born labor force increasingly reliant on an underground market.

"We've got people having to live lies to be able to do the very basic things," said Ed Leahy of the Immigrant Rights Network in Nebraska. "I wish this country would step up to the plate and say, 'We need the people to do these jobs' - because we do."

While authorities think Delgadillo did not use Vidlak's ID for any criminal act except to fraudulently gain employment, people on both sides were hurt.

Vidlak's telephone, for example, has been shut off. She had to use the bill money for credit and other checks. She also bought two paper shredders, worried that more personal information could get into the wrong hands.

Delgadillo faces this dilemma: whether to leave her U.S.-born baby with the infant's dad in a country of more opportunity. She would be reunited with her two older children in Mexico, but they no longer would get the $1,000 a month she sent from her Omaha job.

In some ways, Leahy said, both women are victims.

Vidlak, however, has a hard time buying that.

Her nightmare began earlier this month, with a letter stating that her children, ages 10 and 11, could not receive public health insurance anymore because she earned too much money.

Vidlak, who is divorced, works at a nursing home. But she never made the $13,000 that the government said she earned at a local hotel.

Conducting her own investigation, Vidlak called the hotel. She also paid a personal visit and phoned police from the lobby after determining that someone was using her name.

"I was petrified," Vidlak said. "What about credit cards, doctor bills, what else? I didn't know it was so easy to get my Social Security number."

She suspects that someone stole information from her trash. Delgadillo told authorities that she bought the ID - a counterfeit alien registration card with Vidlak's personal information - from someone in south Omaha.

As Delgadillo spent that first night in jail, her baby daughter was taken to the emergency room with feeding problems, but her health checked out fine.

INS Director Jerry Heinauer said he could not ignore that "this was not a victimless crime."

While the incidence of identity theft is rising, Heinauer said, this particular set of circumstances stood out.

"To have the victim, somebody in the same town, become aware of it and help law enforcement track down and arrest the perpetrator, that's very uncommon."

Delgadillo is to be deported within 10 days. She would face a felony charge if she returned to the United States.

Meanwhile, the man whom Delgadillo loves has cut back his hours at his two jobs so that he can care for their child, Marlene Alexandra.

Relatives watch the baby while he is at work.

The man, who does not want to be identified for fear that he might be arrested, prefers that the child stay in the United States with him.

He said Delgadillo, whom he met in Omaha, had reluctantly left her other children, ages 5 and 9, with their grandmother in Guadalajara because her secretary's job there could not pay the grocery bill.

Delgadillo's ex-husband had lost their money in a bad business investment and abandoned the family, he said.

The hope was that one day all three children would live under the same roof with Delgadillo and Marlene's dad.

For now, an eight-page handwritten letter is what the young father has to try to understand Delgadillo's emotions.

"My heart is breaking for not having you and my baby close to me," the woman wrote in Spanish to her boyfriend.

Vidlak said she, too, has been unable to function as she did before. Her request to get a new Social Security number, she said, was denied.

She feels as though the system offered no real protection for her, a law-abiding citizen.