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U.S. targets illegal hiring

Employers may have to fire those with Social Security discrepancies. Critics say errors will put legal workers at risk.

August 03, 2007|Nicole Gaouette | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — With the failure of immigration legislation in Congress this year, federal officials are planning a new crackdown on illegal immigrants that would force businesses to fire them or face stiff penalties. But the effort also could cause serious headaches for millions of U.S. citizens.

In the coming days, the Department of Homeland Security is expected to issue a rule outlining how businesses must respond when they receive notice that there are discrepancies in a worker's tax records.

Many businesses simply ignore such notices now. Under the new rules, employees would have a limited time to contact the Social Security Administration to correct the information, or face termination.

The rule would transfer more responsibility for enforcement to companies -- part of a Homeland Security effort to break through the complacency that some officials say the corporate world has about illegal workers.

The initiative follows warnings by Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff that his department would toughen enforcement if efforts to overhaul the flawed immigration system failed. The discrepancies detected in Social Security employment records can sometimes flag illegal workers on the job.

However, the planned crackdown has provoked concern because many of the errors are benign: misspellings or incorrect birthdates in records of citizens or legal immigrants. There are errors in the records of an estimated 12.7 million U.S. citizens alone, and workers rushing to correct these discrepancies could swamp Social Security offices, much as new travel regulations have paralyzed government passport facilities this year.

And businesses are complaining about bearing the burden of enforcing a flawed immigration system.

Despite such opposition, the Bush administration is pressing forward. Officials say the new rule will provide clarity for companies that have said they didn't know what to do when the Social Security Administration sent letters indicating inconsistencies in a worker's records. The administration also sees these "no-match" letters as a way to target illegal immigrants and employers of those who make up Social Security numbers or use other people's.

"Last year, out of 250 million wage reports that the SSA received, as many as 10% belonged to employees whose name doesn't match their Social Security records," said Homeland Security spokesman Russ Knocke. "That doesn't necessarily indicate a modest clerical error; it's indicative of a broader, widespread problem. The rule fixes that and tells employers there are no more excuses."

In the last two years, Homeland Security has focused increasingly on work-site enforcement -- raiding factories and prosecuting employers in criminal court. In June, Chertoff said his agency would not slow down.

"We're going to continue to bring criminal cases against employers in record numbers," he warned. "Some of those employers are going to be very unhappy. They're going to say, 'It's unfair.' But in order to regain credibility with the American people that has been squandered over 30 years, we're going to have to be tough."

In 2005, the latest year for which figures are available, the Social Security Administration sent 8.1 million letters to workers at their home addresses, asking them to resolve differences between the information Social Security has on file and what is shown on their employers' W-2 forms. If no home address is available, the letter is sent to the worker's company. The agency sent 1.5 million of these letters in 2005. Officials will also write to a business if it has more than 10 employees who trigger a no-match.

In a December 2006 study to examine the accuracy of Homeland Security's existing program of voluntary employer verification, Social Security's inspector general estimated that 17.8 million records on file had inconsistencies, including those of 12.7 million native-born citizens, 250,000 foreign-born citizens and 4.8 million noncitizens -- a category for legal immigrants.

When businesses ignored the letters in the past, little would happen. The Homeland Security rule is expected to give companies a few weeks to check whether the inconsistency is in their records. If it is not, the companies will have to give workers a few months to resolve the problem with Social Security. If the workers do not, the companies must fire them or face fines. The rule, expected today or early next week, could be enacted immediately or after a period of 30 or 60 days.

Laura Reiff, a co-chair of the Business Immigration & Compliance Group at Greenberg Traurig, a Washington law firm, predicts it will trigger "a massive sea change in how employers deal with no-match letters." Her firm tried unsuccessfully to delay implementation of the rule during recent debate on a Homeland Security spending bill.

"My real fear is that we'll see lots of terminations and a lot of people displaced, maybe some of them going into the underground economy," she said. "Lawfully work-authorized people may also be terminated."

Timothy Sparapani, legislative counsel with the American Civil Liberties Union, noted the millions of no-match letters that Social Security sends every year and was skeptical about Homeland Security's ability to follow through. "I don't know where they're going to get the workforce to do it," he said.

Immigrants rights groups were also concerned.

"With comprehensive immigration reform failed, this is an attempt to deal with the problem administratively, but doing this without comprehensive reform is just setting up a failed system," said Tyler Moran of the National Immigration Law Center. "This rule will have an enormous impact on the economy, and it's not just undocumented immigrants.

"We're going to see a lot of collateral damage."

--

nicole.gaouette@latimes.com

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