Thursday, June 15, 2006

President Bush has put forward a comprehensive vision for immigration reform that will secure our borders, strengthen interior enforcement and create a temporary worker program that is not amnesty but will provide a legal, regulated path for those seeking work in the United States.

A key part of this strategy is effective worksite enforcement. Simply put, we need to give employers better tools to verify the legal status of their employees. Under the president’s plan, we will provide new tools — including a tamper-proof identification card for legal foreign workers and an expanded electronic verification system that will allow employers to quickly and accurately confirm work eligibility.

At the same time, we need to enforce stronger penalties against employers who knowingly hire illegal aliens, including employers who have made illegal labor part of their business model. Congress is hard at work on a bill that will make the president’s vision a reality, but two additional reforms will help us hold employers accountable for breaking the law and help the Department of Homeland Security identify and prosecute employers who are blatantly abusing our immigration system.

First, employers have an obligation under existing law to take action when the federal government notifies them that they may have hired an illegal alien. In certain instances, when a worker’s Social Security number does not match that worker’s name on tax or employment eligibility documents, the federal government sends out a “no-match” letter asking them to resolve the discrepancy. In fact, out of 250 million wage reports the Social Security Administration receives each year, as many as 10 percent belong to employees whose names don’t match their Social Security numbers. SSA attempts to clear up these mismatches, sorting out reports where the worker’s name or Social Security number was mistyped but still ends up with almost 9 million unmatched reports.

SSA then frequently mails out no-match notices that explain to workers how to clear up the mismatch. SSA does this because workers whose wages cannot be matched to correct Social Security numbers may lose a portion of their retirement and disability benefits.

But despite this threat of lost benefits, less than 1 percent of workers actually clear up the mismatch. Why? Experience tells us that as many as 90 percent of these workers do not clear up the mismatch for the simple reason that they are illegal aliens not authorized to be working or to even be in this country and who procured their jobs through immigration fraud.

As it stands, although some employers are charged with constructive knowledge of ignoring no-match letters, some employers simply disregard “no-match” notices with little consequence. But that is going to change. Last week, the Department of Homeland Security issued a proposed regulation that will establish a specific process for employers to take corrective action when they receive a “no-match” notice. Under the proposed regulation, it will be clear that employers must check employment records, determine the cause of the mismatch and notify the appropriate federal agencies if they cannot resolve the problem. If employers fail to do so in a reasonable period of time, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement can, in appropriate circumstances, hold them legally accountable for knowingly continuing to employ an illegal worker.

But clarifying mismatches is only part of the solution. We also need to give our Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents a better way to determine which employers are habitually using or providing fraudulent Social Security information. One way to do that is by giving our agents sufficient access to no-match data. Under current law, the Social Security Administration does not provide sufficient access in sharing this information. This is simply wrong, and Congress needs to change the law.

If we had sufficient access to no-match data, we could better target our enforcement efforts to the companies that are most likely to be deliberately exploiting illegal labor: the companies that have the largest percentage of no-match employees. In fact, in a study conducted last year, the Government Accountability Office discovered dozens of employers who provided the very same Social Security number for more than a hundred employees. In one instance, an employer used the same Social Security number for more than 2,500 employees in a single tax year. Certainly there will be occasions where employers will be able to offer legitimate explanations for their behavior, but Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents need sufficient access to scrutinize the no-match data.

Even more important, the Department of Homeland Security could use the additional data to find potential immigration fraud at critical infrastructure facilities, such as dams, chemical plants or airports. These are places where sabotage or an accident could kill hundreds or thousands of Americans. They are not places where we should tolerate workers who have lied to get their jobs and who may pose a danger to this country.

Congress needs to break down the wall that separates our Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents from data that would help them find illegal workers and the employers who exploit them. Changing the law will not mean an invasion of workers’ privacy. Indeed, it can help protect privacy by preventing identity theft and misuse of an individual’s Social Security number.

We cannot stop illegal migration if we do not stop illegal employment, strengthen our border defenses and offer illegal workers a chance to come out of the shadows and take legal, temporary jobs. But we will not succeed in bringing these workers out of the shadows if we ourselves do not have the information we need to enforce our immigration laws.

Michael Chertoff is secretary of the Department of Homeland Security.

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