NEWS

Judge Says No to Social Security No-Match Letters

By Matthew Harwood

A federal judge yesterday blocked the Bush Administration from sending out Social Security "no-match" letters which would attempt to identify illegal workers hired by American employers, reports The Washington Post.

In a 22-page ruling, [U.S. District Judge Charles R.] Breyer said the plaintiffs -- an unusual coalition that included the AFL-CIO, the American Civil Liberties Union and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce -- had raised serious questions about the legality of the administration's plan to mail Social Security "no-match" letters to 140,000 U.S. employers.

After receiving the no-match letter, the employer would have to verify that their workers were legal within 90 days or fire them. If they do not fire the worker, they could face harsh penalties including fines and criminal prosecution for not abiding by federal law barring employers from knowingly hiring illegal workers.

The problem, the plaintiffs argue, is that the Social Security Administration's database is riddled with so many errors that legal workers were certain to become ensnared unfairly in the government's efforts to weed out illegal workers which in turn would cause business disruptions. The judge agreed and granted a preliminary injunction.

This comes little more than a month after a temporary restraining order was issued to stop the no-match letters from being sent, which set up the hearing before Breyer.

In response, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff released a press statement. "Disappointed" by the ruling, he said:

The no-match regulation gives employers clear guidance on what to do if they receive a letter from the Social Security Administration communicating that an employee's name does not match the social security number it has on file. If an employer follows the regulation's guidance in good faith, which entails various steps to rectify the no-match within 90 days of receiving the letter, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement will not use the letter as evidence in an enforcement action against the employer. If the company does nothing to resolve the problem it can be held liable for employing an unauthorized worker and could face stiff penalties or sanctions. Ultimately, employer diligence will make it more difficult for illegal aliens to use a fraudulent social security number to get a job.

Chertoff said DHS is reviewing the decision with the Department of Justice and will examine its options, including appeal.

The article also contains a interesting graph which details which states would be most affected by the no-match letters. In 2006, the government sent out 138,000 no-match letters. The two states that received the most letters not surprisingly bordered Mexico: California and Texas.

Another graph shows which industries would be affected most severely if the Bush Administration's policy eventually succeeds. Using data from the Pew Hispanic Center, the graph breaks down which industries employ most of the nation's unauthorized workers which account for five percent of the American workforce. The number one most affected industry is agriculture followed by roofing, construction, grounds maintenance, painting, and cooking.

The Post said the judge's ruling underscores a tension between illegal immigration and economic necessity.

The case also called attention to the gulf between Washington rhetoric about the need to curtail illegal immigration and the economic reality that many U.S. employers rely on illegal labor, as well as to the government's inability for nearly three decades to develop adequate tools for identifying undocumented workers.

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