Thursday, October 11, 2007

A federal judge in San Francisco yesterday blocked plans by the Department of Homeland Security and the Social Security Administration to crack down on employers who hire illegal aliens.

U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer issued an order saying the agencies could not go forward with plans announced in August to send letters warning employers they face stiff penalties — including fines of up to $10,000 — if they hire workers whose Social Security numbers do not match their names.

Judge Breyer, appointed by President Clinton in 1997, said the new work-site rules likely would impose hardships on businesses and their workers, adding that the plaintiffs had “demonstrated they will be irreparably harmed” if the rules are enforced.

The judge, the younger brother of Supreme Court Justice Stephen G. Breyer, issued a preliminary injunction that will remain in effect until a pending lawsuit challenging the rules goes to trial sometime next year or until a higher court intervenes. The plaintiffs in the suit include the AFL-CIO, the American Civil Liberties Union, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and a number of other business, labor and immigration-activist groups.

In August, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said the new rules required the verification of documents by employers, adding that they would be reinforced by increased raids on workplaces that employ an estimated 6 million illegal workers.

Yesterday, Mr. Chertoff said although the judge rejected many of the plaintiffs’ legal challenges, the department was “disappointed” in the ruling. He said the department is reviewing the decision with the Justice Department and “will examine all of our options, including appeal.”

Mr. Chertoff said President Bush has made it clear that the Department of Homeland Security is going to do as much as it can within the boundaries of the law to further secure the nation’s borders and enforce immigration laws.

“Today’s ruling is yet another reminder of why we need Congress to enact comprehensive immigration reform,” Mr. Chertoff said. “The American people have been loud and clear about their desire to see our nation’s immigration laws enforced.”

Hector Figueroa, secretary-treasurer of Local 32BJ of the Service Employees International Union, called the ruling “a victory that will halt unnecessary discrimination against workers and turmoil in our economy.”

“The court recognized that implementing ‘enforcement only’ policies based on a backlogged and inaccurate database will not fix our broken immigration system,” he said. “The notion of making immigrant workers miserable — by targeting and scaring them through no-match letters, raids and other punitive measures — is not only inhumane, it’s irrational.”

Local 32BJ represents more than 85,000 maintenance, security and public-service workers, the majority of whom are immigrants, in Connecticut, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Washington, D.C.

Employers are required to verify that their workers are in the country legally by collecting their Social Security numbers and immigration documents. Those numbers are checked against U.S. government databases, and employers are notified of those that fail to match.

Nearly 10 percent of the 250 million wage reports sent to the Social Security Administration each year do not match, according to the Department of Homeland Security, although many of those mismatches are caused by record-keeping errors. For decades, employers have paid little attention to these federal requirements.

ICE is actively pursuing employers who hire illegals. The number of ICE arrests for criminal violations in work-site raids has risen sharply since fiscal 2002 — up from 25 to 613 in fiscal 2007. There also has been an increase in administrative arrests, up from 485 in fiscal 2002 to 3,226 in fiscal 2007. Administrative immigration arrests refer to illegal-alien workers who are in the United States unlawfully, but have committed no other crime.

While the so-called “no-match” letters were supposed to start being sent to employers in September, various labor groups, immigration advocates and others filed a lawsuit saying the plan would put a heavy burden on employers, and could cause many authorized immigrants and U.S. citizens to lose their jobs because of innocent paperwork errors. The first mailing was to include 140,000 letters containing the names of 10 or more employees with mismatches in their records.

Government attorneys argued that the new rules did not impose an expense, and some businesses wanted to avoid liability for hiring illegal workers. They said the new rules simply clarify employers’ obligations under immigration law and give them clear guidelines on how to handle mismatched records.

Until now, the Social Security Administration regularly notified employers of discrepancies, but employers were not required to act.

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