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Judge bars action against illegal hires

She blocks a crackdown on employers with workers whose names and Social Security numbers don't match.

September 01, 2007|Anna Gorman | Times Staff Writer

A federal judge in San Francisco on Friday temporarily blocked the U.S. government from starting its planned crackdown against employers who hired undocumented immigrant workers.

U.S. District Judge Maxine M. Chesney issued a temporary restraining order preventing the Social Security Administration from sending so-called no-match letters to companies whose employees' names do not match the Social Security numbers they used when they applied for their jobs.

It also prohibits the Department of Homeland Security from fining companies that don't act on those letters.

"This is a critical and important first step," said Lucas Guttentag, director of the ACLU Immigrants' Rights Project and one of the lawyers for the plaintiffs. "It means that workers will not be threatened as a result of an improper rule or inaccurate notices that were about to be sent out."

But Homeland Security spokeswoman Laura Keehner said she believed the government strategy would ultimately be implemented.

"We are disappointed by the delay and expect to prevail once the court has the benefit of full briefings and arguments," she said.

The letters were scheduled to be sent Tuesday to about 140,000 employers with at least 10 workers whose names and Social Security numbers don't match. Under the Homeland Security rule, the affected companies would have to resolve any discrepancies within 90 days or face sanctions.

The judge's ruling came two days after a coalition of labor and immigrant rights groups sued Social Security and the Department of Homeland Security.

In its lawsuit, the coalition argued that the new rule would lead to discrimination against documented and U.S. citizen workers and result in unfair firings.

The coalition, which included the AFL-CIO and the American Civil Liberties Union, also argued in the suit that the Social Security database was full of errors.

After a hearing Friday, Chesney wrote in her ruling that the plaintiffs "raised serious questions as to whether the new Department of Homeland Security rule is inconsistent with statute."

"The balance of harms tips sharply in favor of a stay based on plaintiffs' showing that they and their members would suffer irreparable harm if the rule is implemented," Chesney wrote.

A hearing before District Judge Charles Breyer is scheduled for Oct. 1 to let Homeland Security argue against a request for a permanent injunction that would prohibit the agency from implementing the new policy.

Marielena HincapiƩ, director of programs at the National Immigration Law Center, said the organizations had anticipated that Chesney might delay the mailings but the fact that she temporarily stopped the department's rule from going into effect Sept. 14 was a "great victory."

HincapiƩ said she was hopeful the court would find at the October hearing that the rule was not valid and that Homeland Security had acted "beyond its legal authority."

Meanwhile, Keehner said the department would continue to enforce immigration law and go after employers who hired illegal workers.

In the last year, Immigration and Customs Enforcement has investigated and raided numerous workplaces, resulting in deportations of workers and civil and criminal sanctions against employers.

"We will continue to uphold and enforce the law and restore the public faith in our immigration enforcement capabilities," Keehner said.

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anna.gorman@latimes.com

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