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Learning you're undocumented, the hard way

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PHOENIX -

Illegal immigrants, using fake papers or assuming a fake identity to work or go to school. While many are charged with identity theft, as FOX 10's Jill Monier found out, some never knew they were stealing an identity or were even "illegal" to begin with.

21-year-old Estefania Rosas spent 8 months in Estrella Jail.

Like many teens, Rosas started looking for her first job at 15. A family member gave her what she thought was her social security card.

"I didn't know the social was fake," says Rosas. She didn't find out until she started applying for colleges her senior year in high school.

Rosas grew up in America, thinking she was an American. The biggest shock she got was finding out she wasn't.

"I hit a depression at that point… I never thought I was like 'illegal,' you know?"

Her parents brought her to America as an infant and never told her she was born in Mexico.

"I grew up thinking I lived here, you know, I had no reason to ask."

But 3 years later, the 21-year-old still had the fake ID with her, she says, collecting dust.

"I just left them in my wallet, I forgot about it."

In November, Rosas was arrested when a deputy found the fake document during a traffic stop. She was charged with felony forgery and identity theft. Lance Wells is her attorney.

"That was a very common thing. Family got identification, the children got it and used it until they discovered it wasn't valid, if they ever did discover that. Unfortunately some discover it when they get criminal charges pressed against them," says Wells.

Wells says another man he represented was in his 40s when he discovered he was here illegally, only after being arrested.

"Married, had children, going along just fine, a professional, discovered when he applied for a passport his birth certificate was fake. His parents were quite elderly, they said oh yeah we forgot to tell you you're not a U.S. citizen."

Wells said they were able to prove the man didn't know the documents were fake. But Rosas' case was different.

The felonies she was charged with were so severe, she was not allowed to post bond. She was facing deportation if convicted.

"I don't know, it was just hard on me," says Rosas.

Instead of waiting in jail until a trial, she pleaded guilty to reduced misdemeanor charges and was released. But Wells believes prosecutors could be more lenient.

"Charges, for example, brought against these people could be dropped to a lower level so that they qualify to post bail and get out of jail, so we're not using the jail as a holding facility for non-criminal immigrants."

Wells says many with fake IDs use made-up social security numbers that don't belong to anyone to work or go to school.

"Obviously with no intent to defraud anybody."

But others say people's identities are stolen and they become victims of crime. The county attorney's office wouldn't go on camera but a spokesperson issued a statement saying: "The County Attorney has made it clear that our office does not base prosecutorial decisions on an individual's residency status but on an individual's conduct. Identity theft is a serious crime in Arizona and has triggered strong public demand for tougher enforcement. As a result... Arizona has dropped from having the highest rate of identity theft complaints in the country in 2008, to the 8th highest today."

As it turns out, Rosas was granted deferred action the day she was arrested for having the fake ID.

"I just got out, got my social and I started working. My real social now this time," says Rosas.

She's now working legally at a warehouse.

"It feels amazing knowing I can work, provide for myself, help my family."

Recently, local attorneys have been successful in persuading immigration and customs enforcement not to deport some immigrants who were caught using fake IDs to work.

Rosas has plans to go to college now. She wants to be a mechanical engineer.

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