A coalition of labor and immigrant rights groups sued the U.S. Department of Homeland Security on Wednesday to block the agency's planned crackdown on employers who hire undocumented workers.
The lawsuit, filed in federal court in San Francisco, contends that the rules would lead to mass firings of workers who are U.S. citizens and to discrimination against employees who look or sound foreign. It also names the Social Security Administration as a defendant.
The suit asks for a court order preventing the federal government from enacting the changes, which are part of a blitz of immigration enforcement actions announced by Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff this month.
An agency spokesman said that the lawsuit was "completely without merit" and that the agency would fight it "vigorously."
Social Security plans to begin sending so-called no-match letters Tuesday to companies where employees' names do not match their Social Security numbers. Initially, about 15,000 letters will be sent out each week for eight to 10 weeks, potentially affecting millions of workers.
Chertoff has said that businesses that don't act on the letters within 90 days could face fines.
The rules are likely to reduce employment in the construction, janitorial and landscaping industries, analysts have said, and leave farmers without workers to pick crops, restaurants without cooks and dishwashers and small businesses without a ready source of casual labor.
The coalition of plaintiffs, which includes the American Civil Liberties Union and the AFL-CIO, said the changes would have a devastating effect on legal workers because the Social Security database is full of errors. Mistakes can occur, for example, if someone gets married or divorced but does not report a name change to Social Security.
"Tens of thousands of workers are going to lose their jobs right before the holidays," said Marielena Hincapie, executive director of the National Immigration Law Center, one of the plaintiffs.
Labor groups also say they believe employers will use the no-match letters to exploit workers or to retaliate against those who are trying to organize into unions.
"Employers have used no-match letters in the past to basically quash worker organizing," said Ana Avendaño, director of the AFL-CIO's immigrant worker program.
"The Bush administration is giving unscrupulous employers another union-busting tool."
Homeland Security Department spokesman Russ Knocke defended the regulation Wednesday, saying that employers were responsible for ensuring that their workers were authorized and that employers had sufficient time under the rule to deal with no-match letters. Those who disregard the letters "should expect serious consequences," he said.
"This lawsuit is an obvious attempt to impede the department's ability to enforce our immigration laws," Knocke said.
The regulations come after Congress failed to reach a compromise on comprehensive immigration legislation.
Business associations also have expressed concerns about the regulations and the accuracy of the Social Security database. In a letter dated Monday, dozens of business groups -- including the National Restaurant Assn. and the Associated General Contractors of America -- asked Chertoff and the Social Security commissioner to delay implementation for six months.
"Employers will be overwhelmed with paperwork as the government seeks to make employers responsible for the decades-old administrative problems," the letter read. "The regulation also jeopardizes vital U.S. industries and the U.S. economy as a whole by needlessly creating uncertainties, disruptions and dislocations throughout broad swaths of the workforce."
Knocke said the government expected some resistance.
"Still, we're going to restore public credibility on enforcement," he said.
The Homeland Security Department will face challenges enforcing the regulation because Social Security is restricted from sharing certain information. Sen. Wayne Allard (R-Colo.) is expected to introduce a bill in coming weeks that would allow for more information sharing.
Immigrant-rights groups said Wednesday that the employer enforcement wouldn't result in the deportation of millions of undocumented workers. Employers either will fire them and hire a new batch of illegal immigrant workers -- or they will simply take the workers off the books and force them further underground.
"It is really not effective immigration enforcement," Avendaño said. "It's just smoke and mirrors."