Judge Blocks Program to ID Illegal Immigrants

A federal judge in San Francisco blocks the start of a controversial program to find illegal immigrants in the nation's workforce. Under the plan businesses face penalties if they keep workers whose Social Security numbers don't match their names.

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This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Deborah Amos, sitting in for Renee Montagne.

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And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.

This rule's change must have seemed simple at the time. The government wants to target companies that hire illegal immigrants. Around eight million illegals work in this country, and many use fake social security numbers. That's the violation that the U.S. wants employers to check.

This morning, though, the new program is still not underway. A federal judge in San Francisco has extended a ban on the new rule. He says he needs more time to consider if the measure should go into effect.

NPR's Carrie Kahn reports.

CARRIE KAHN: The Department of Homeland Security drafted the rule to try and get employers to pay attention to so-called no match letters. For years, the Social Security Administration has been sending millions of the letters to businesses when a number used by an employee doesn't match the government's database.

If the new rule went into affect, employers would have 90 days to fix the error or fire the worker. If not, the business could face substantial fines and even criminal penalties.

Outside the courthouse, Deputy Assistant Attorney General Tom Dupree said the new rule would finally give employers the tools they need to ensure their workforce is legal.

Mr. THOMAS DUPREE (Deputy Assistant Attorney, Immigration Division, Justice Department): This is a rule that provides much needed guidance and clarity to employers who want to comply with the law and who want to understand their obligations when they receive a no match letter.

KAHN: DHS launched the new enforcement campaign in August after Congress failed to overhaul the nation's immigration laws.

Anti-illegal immigration activists like Ron Altman said it's about time.

Mr. RON ALTMAN (Anti-Illegal Immigration Activist): Those people that want to continue the use of cheap, illegal alien labor do not want this law to go through. That was the argument that you heard in the courtroom today, dancing around all the legal issues. What they do not want is to have our immigration laws enforced. And this puts us one step closer to ending the magnet that is bringing the illegal aliens into our country to begin with.

KAHN: But the new rule has angered labor unions and immigrant rights activists who sued to stop it. They got a federal court judge to put the program on hold temporarily in August.

Several trade unions, the AFL-CIO and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, have all joined the case. They say a large number of mistakes on social security cards are innocent name misspellings and birth date mix-ups. And if those letters are sent out, activists warn that legal workers could face discrimination and illegal firings. Lawyers with the ACLU argued in court that the DHS doesn't have the right to enact law.

Louis Guttentag is an attorney with the ACLU.

Mr. LOUIS GUTTENTAG (Attorney, ACLU): It's not authorized by Congress. It's not part of the statute. And DHS does not have the authority to hijack the social security system to turn it into an immigration enforcement scheme.

KAHN: U.S. District Court Judge Charles Breyer appeared to agree. He asked the government's lawyers several times to show him the law that lets DHS tell employers that they have to fire workers. And Breyer said he was worried about the burden the new rule would put on businesses.

After listening for more than two hours, Breyer said he needed time to think about the case, and kept the temporary restraining order in place. The government objected. Breyer shot back the government has waited for than a year while Congress debated and then failed to pass comprehensive immigration reform. He said he didn't see why it couldn't wait 10 more days.

Carrie Kahn, NPR News, San Francisco.

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