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Top Bush administration officials announced today the federal government will clamp down on the hiring of illegal immigrants - this, after Congress failed to pass more sweeping reform. The new steps include increasing fines on those who hire illegal immigrants and a requirement that employers fire workers who use phony Social Security numbers.
NPR's Pam Fessler has this report.
PAM FESSLER: The administration pushed for passage of a broad immigration reform bill this year. But because that didn't happen, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff says the government is now turning to what he calls an imperfect solution.
Secretary MICHAEL CHERTOFF (U.S. Department of Homeland Security): Time has run out. So now, we're going to go back to the old tools and we're going to sharpen them up as best we can. I'm not going to tell you that it's as good as what we were looking to get out of Congress.
FESSLER: In fact, the new measure is largely focused on stepped-up enforcement. The administration wants more border patrol agents and a 25 percent increase in the fine imposed on those who knowingly hire illegal immigrants. It's also requiring that employers, who are notified that a worker's Social Security name and number don't match government records, fire that worker if the discrepancy isn't resolved in 90 days. Chertoff says his agency also plans more workplace raids.
Sec. CHERTOFF: Obviously, there are employers who deliberately violate the law. And we will come down on them like a ton of bricks.
FESSLER: But Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez says some steps will also be taken to expand job opportunities for immigrants.
Secretary CARLOS GUTIERREZ (U.S. Department of Commerce): It is clear that there are jobs that Americans aren't willing to do or that Americans are not available to do. And we need to acknowledge this reality.
FESSLER: He says efforts will be made to streamline visa programs for agricultural and other seasonal workers. Craig Regelbrugge is co-chair of the Agriculture Coalition for Immigration Reform. He welcomes the effort, but thinks it's not nearly enough.
Mr. CRAIG REGELBRUGGE (Co-chair, Agriculture Coalition for Immigration Reform): I can appreciate the frustration that so many Americans feel that our immigration system is out of control. But nobody should be fooled into thinking that what's being proposed and implemented by the administration will bring about a real solution.
FESSLER: He says an estimated 70 percent of those who plant and harvest the nation's food are illegal workers. But he says many now pay taxes, and that going after phony Social Security numbers could force more of these workers off the books.
Other business groups and labor unions worry that many legal workers could lose their jobs because of mistakes in government files. Kathleen Campbell Walker is president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.
Ms. KATHLEEN CAMPBELL WALKER (President, American Immigration Lawyers Association): We're seeing a focus on enforcement actions, when we know that over the past 10 years, increases in enforcement activity have not resulted in a decrease in illegal migration.
FESSLER: But Chertoff takes issue with that. He says stepped-up enforcement is already showing signs of working. Even so, the administration still wants Congress to approve a guest worker program as well.
Pam Fessler, NPR News, Washington.
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