WASHINGTON — The Bush administration on Tuesday ratcheted up its effort to crack down on employers who hire illegal immigrants, part of a broader attempt to deal with immigration and enforcement despite legal challenges and congressional inaction.
The Department of Homeland Security told the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals that it planned to appeal a decision by a federal judge in San Francisco that temporarily blocked efforts to target workers with inconsistent Social Security data -- a linchpin in the government's efforts to stem illegal immigration.
Also Tuesday, the administration announced that its aggressive pursuit of illegal immigrants who had committed crimes had led to what it was calling the first recorded decline in the "fugitive alien" population.
Expected soon are new rules making it easier to bring foreign farmworkers into the country. The government also has continued to add agents along the U.S.-Mexico border and has surpassed its fiscal year 2007 goal for extending fencing along that frontier.
In the court case, the administration filed notice that it intended to appeal an injunction, issued Oct. 10 by U.S. District Judge Charles R. Breyer, against its plan to use Social Security "no-match" letters to target firms that hire illegal workers.
It was the latest step in a court battle over a proposed Homeland Security rule that would force firms to fire workers within 90 days if their Social Security information could not be verified. Many illegal immigrants use false or stolen Social Security numbers to get jobs.
"The point is that we are trying to make it harder to break the law," Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said in an interview with The Times. He added that the rule would have an effect on businesses that hire undocumented workers.
"I welcome that impact, that's the point," he said.
"Up until now, some businesses have taken away the message that we're going to wink-wink at hiring illegal aliens," Chertoff said. "That attitude has caused the American public to become very cynical that we're going to enforce the border. This is a way of keeping faith with the American people."
The administration announced that it had detained record numbers of fugitive immigrants in fiscal year 2006, arresting 30,408 people, almost double the 15,462 taken into custody the year before.
In the Los Angeles area, Fugitive Operations Teams detained 2,667 people, up 63% from 2005. The jump in arrests was attributed in part to an increase in teams working across the country, from 52 in 2005 to 75 in 2006.
The Homeland Security Department also has increased the number of agents at the border to 15,000 as of Nov. 30, from about 12,000 last year.
And it has steadily added fencing, building an additional 76 miles of primary fencing or barriers -- exceeding the goal of 70 miles -- along the U.S.-Mexico border.
As of Nov. 30, the department had built a total of 149 miles of primary fencing, almost 28 miles of secondary fencing and 116 miles of vehicle barriers. By the end of fiscal year 2008, the department intends to finish 370 miles of fencing.
The administration's other enforcement initiatives have drawn broad opposition.
Immigrant advocates denounce the fallout of increased immigration raids and their effect on children, while labor activists say the farm labor changes could hurt U.S. workers.
Business and labor groups oppose the no-match program because of its potential effect on workers and businesses.
"For agriculture, it's the worst of all worlds," said Craig J. Regelbrugge of the American Nursery & Landscape Assn. "Agriculture fears that the majority of workers are unauthorized."
Ana Avendano of the AFL-CIO said inaccuracies in the Social Security database created problems for legal workers. The Social Security Administration has said that there are discrepancies in the records of 12.7 million holders of Social Security cards.
The no-match rule, Avendano said, could encourage employers to simply fire workers with foreign names or use it as a pretext to fire union organizers.
"We've seen the abuse of the Social Security no-match program by employers for many, many years," she said. "Our concern with the new rule is that would just make it a stronger pretext to discriminate."
Administration officials say the no-match initiative is central to stemming illegal immigration, because the key to stopping such border-crossers lies in ending their ability to get jobs.
The appeal of the injunction against the no-match program is the second line of attack the administration is taking to overcome Breyer's ruling.
Chertoff said his department was reworking its proposed rule to address the judge's concerns in three areas: that the administration had not explained its no-match policy change well enough; that it had not evaluated the rule's effect on small businesses; and that Homeland Security seemed to be overreaching its authority in some respects.
Chertoff said the "two-track" approach of rewriting the rule and simultaneously appealing would allow the department to issue no-match letters "by early next year."
He said he expected that the plaintiffs -- an odd-bedfellows group encompassing the Chamber of Commerce, organized labor and immigrant groups -- would "fight tooth and nail." He attributed much of the difficulty in enforcing immigration law to these legal challenges.
"That's why over 30 years, [immigration officials] had trouble enforcing the law; they got worn down by constant litigation," he said. "The bad news for the plaintiffs is that I am sticking to this."