- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 23, 2003

Canton, Miss., has been awfully quiet in the past few weeks, thanks largely to the Social Security Administration, according to Sheriff Toby Trowbridge.

“It’s been a ghost town down at the trailer park,” the Madison County sheriff said last week.

The Social Security Administration notified Peco Foods Inc. that the Social Security numbers of at least 200 employees were not valid, and the company let the workers go earlier this month.

Sheriff Trowbridge threatened to arrest the laid-off workers who lived in the Westside Trailer Park next to the plant on suspicion of being illegal immigrants. Since then, however, most of them have disappeared, he said.

“They are illegal, and they were going to have to go on to someplace else, whether it’s back to Mexico or just move on,” the sheriff said. “We were having trouble with illegals in the community for a long time before this came about.”

The SSA issued 900,000 similar warnings, or “No Match” letters, to companies nationwide last year. This was a record for the agency.

But this year, after an outcry from immigration groups, SSA is cutting to 130,000 the number of such warnings it will send and dropping threatening language that warned of fines against companies for providing incorrect numbers.

The letters caused “tens of thousands of workers to lose their jobs over the last six to eight years, contributed to a climate of fear and repression in immigrant communities, and caused employers widespread confusion,” according to the National Immigration Law Center.

SSA spokesman Mark Lassiter said the reduction in warnings this year is not in response to complaints from employers and employees. “We are just trying to balance the use of our resources versus the cost of sending letters out and based on the volume of corrections,” he said.

Mr. Lassiter could not give the number of corrections employers had provided last year and said only that “the percentage of corrections was very low.”

Since 1937, the SSA has deposited unclaimed payroll tax money into a special fund, which, according to the agency’s inspector general, grew to $374 billion in 2000.

There are an estimated 8 million illegal aliens in the country, but there are no figures on how many are employed, said a spokesman for the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Peco’s employees in Mississippi were not questioned about their legal status but were told to resolve the mismatch with the SSA to keep their jobs, the company said in a written statement to The Washington Times.

Some employees “immediately ceased coming to work, while others worked up until the deadline,” the company said. “Apparently, none of the affected employees who were asked to contact the SSA did, in fact, do so, as none of those individuals returned … with any explanation as to why the discrepancy in the Social Security information existed.”

Peco also said that “employees were not terminated … for any reason related to their legal status in this country.” Instead, the “sole reason” they were fired “was the refusal of the employees to carry out the company’s instructions to them that they contact the SSA and present the company with some explanation as to why there was a discrepancy between the information maintained in the company’s files and the information maintained by the SSA.”

The SSA’s no-match letter issued this year makes clear to employers that no action can be taken against their employees based solely on the letter.

“IMPORTANT: This letter does not imply that you or your employee intentionally gave the government wrong information about the employee’s name or Social Security number. Nor does it make any statement about an employee’s immigration status,” the letter says.

“You should not use this letter to take any adverse action against an employee … such as laying off, suspending, firing, or discriminating against that individual. Doing so could, in fact, violate state or federal law and subject you to legal consequences,” it says.

Still, the letter is causing confusion for companies about what action to take, said Gregory Siskind, an immigration lawyer. “In a lot of cases, there is a legitimate reason, a potential mismatch on the number, but employers are generally left scratching their heads,” he said.

More than 100 immigrant workers were fired from an Illinois factory in June because of no-match letters. The company said forged documents were used by some to obtain their jobs.

Similar language was contained in letters issued last year, but that didn’t alleviate the fears of illegal workers at a North Carolina factory, who contacted their union when asked to provide correct documents within a week. The union lawyer convinced factory management that it would be sued for discrimination if it fired workers because of the letter, according to the Charlotte Observer.

Last year, the letters were sent to employers even if one employee’s number came back mismatched. This year, companies get letters only if at least 10 numbers are rejected.

The SSA has issued the letters to employers since 1994 and does not share the information with other government agencies. “We don’t report, we don’t make any statements” to immigration officials, Mr. Lassiter said.

A fact sheet issued by the National Employment Law Project (NELP) also assures workers that the information won’t be shared with immigration officials. Workers are advised that their employer is not required to take any action if a correct Social Security number is not provided. NELP tells illegal workers they have “many of the same rights as citizens and immigrants with work authorization.”

“One of your most basic rights is the right to remain silent when an employer inquires about your legal status after you have been hired,” the NELP fact sheet said.

The fired workers in Illinois are planning a boycott and have protested outside the office of their former employer. Many of the immigrant workers in the North Carolina factory have since been laid off and are seeking unemployment benefits.

But in Mississippi, “we’ve gone from a serious problem to a ghost town,” Sheriff Trowbridge said.

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