Feds Stand Down on Immigration Crackdown

A new plan to crack down on illegal immigration is on hold. The federal program was supposed to have started this week. It compares employee Social Security numbers with those on file, and cracks down on employers with too many mismatches.

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A crackdown on illegal immigration that was supposed to begin this week will not. A court has temporarily blocked it. Under the proposed new rule, businesses would be held accountable if their employees failed to prove they had a valid Social Security number. Labor and civil rights groups say the rules would unfairly harm even legal workers. That's why they sued.

NPR's Jennifer Ludden joins us now. And Jennifer, how would this program have worked if it head started?

JENNIFER LUDDEN: Well, what we were supposed to see was a Social Security administration start mailing out 140,000 letters to various businesses affecting about eight million of their employees, telling them these employees' Social Security numbers don't match up. They're not valid as far as we can tell. That's not new.

But the new part was that the Department of Homeland Security was going to have a little flyer in these letters telling businesses, guess what, in the past we know you've ignored these letters but now you can't do that. You've got 90 days to sort out these mismatched Social Security numbers. After that, if you don't fire these workers, then we could fine you or even hold you criminally responsible for knowingly hiring an undocumented worker.

INSKEEP: And why would the government have tried that step now?

LUDDEN: Well, it's really coming in the wake of the failure of immigration reform in Congress. We see the administration now trying smaller steps here and there to tighten the law. So they've had these letters going out anyway. They really wanted to share information with the Social Security Administration. They can't under law, but they want to make businesses more accountable so that they don't put these letters in the trash. And they say that this is a really smart way to close down this magnet of employment that they say draws illegal immigrants here in the first place.

INSKEEP: Well, would you explain how it was that labor and civil rights groups had grounds to sue the government, saying that the government was enforcing the law that's already on the books?

LUDDEN: Well, what they say is you're taking a system set up for one thing, which is to ensure that everyone pays the taxes they owe, and you're using it for something completely different, which is cracking down on illegal immigration. They say if you want to make that change, only Congress can do it.

Now, they also point out that the Social Security database has a lot of errors. About four percent of the numbers out there are wrong and this can be for a variety of reasons: a typo, you forget to change your name if you get married or divorced or if you've got multiple surnames. And so they say that even legal immigrants are at risk because, they say, some businesses aren't going to go to the hassle of correcting this. They're just going to fire you if your name pops up. And the ACLU was warning of, you know, discrimination for anyone who looks or sounds foreign.

INSKEEP: Does that already happen now? Do people get fired because their Social Security numbers aren't right?

LUDDEN: Labor groups say that some businesses use them as leverage if someone tries to organize or raise questions. They will say, yup, they'll show you the letter, you're out of here. And it's an intimidation tactic.

INSKEEP: Hmm. So what happens now with the court case?

LUDDEN: There's a hearing October 1st. So a judge will then decide whether or not this new rule can go ahead.

INSKEEP: Because of the fact that we were just days away from this actually happening, I assume that businesses were already preparing to take steps.

LUDDEN: Yeah, preparing but realizing they can't do much but worry and wait, really. And there's a lot of concern. I mean, you've got, you know, farmers facing a harvest coming up. There are estimates that 70 percent of agricultural workers in the nation are illegal immigrants. The hospitality industry is concerned, the construction companies. Even Homeland Security Chief Michael Chertoff did warn, when he announced these rules, of serious economic harm.

On the other hand, you know, there's no new agents to back this up. No new agents to carry out workplace raids. So it's still a bit of a crapshoot whether or not your particular company gets raided. And I think what the government is striving for is a heightened self-compliance.

INSKEEP: NPR's Jennifer Ludden covers immigration issues. Jennifer, thanks very much.

LUDDEN: Thank you.

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