By Nicole Gaouette
October 23, 2008
Reporting from Washington -- In a final drive to toughen immigration enforcement, the Bush administration will again try to institute a system that would force employers to fire workers who have discrepancies in their Social Security data.
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said Thursday that he would ask a federal judge to lift an injunction imposed against the "no-match" rule after foes including the American Civil Liberties Union and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce sued to stop it last year.
The move could affect millions of workers -- citizens and immigrants alike -- and continues to draw fierce opposition from business as well as civil liberties and immigrant advocate groups.
In an annual address on border enforcement and illegal immigration, Chertoff said that he expected continued resistance to the rule but that his agency had addressed concerns raised in the lawsuit.
Under the rule, businesses could be prosecuted for failing to respond to notices from the Social Security Administration that workers' information does not match data on file with the government, often an indicator of illegal immigration but frequently the result of simple inconsistencies or clerical errors.
The no-match rule would be part of the Bush administration's wide-ranging crackdown on illegal immigration, a campaign that also involves controversial mass workplace raids and requirements that federal contractors verify that every employee is authorized to work.
With less than three months before a new administration comes to power, Chertoff used the annual address to try to hammer out a legacy for himself and his young agency, founded in 2003. Chertoff declared that Homeland Security had made unprecedented progress in slowing the flow of migrants crossing the border.
"For the first year in many years that anybody can remember, the efforts we've undertaken at the border have begun to turn the tide of illegal immigration," Chertoff said, citing a flat or declining number of illegal immigrants in the country, more aggressive enforcement at work sites and greater levels of infrastructure and personnel at the border.
"Many of the things we've accomplished are things that people thought we couldn't do," Chertoff said. "We've done more in five years than has been accomplished in decades before."
The Homeland Security chief said the next administration should maintain current levels of enforcement and urged Congress to return to the controversial issue of comprehensive immigration reform, which lawmakers abandoned after efforts sputtered last year.
Chertoff said the crackdown would cast immigration reform in a more favorable light.
"Americans will soon say, 'OK, it's now time to allow more legal immigrants in,' " he said. "Ultimately, we're going to have to go back to Congress and ask for comprehensive immigration reform."
Chertoff also said the agency had completed about 370 miles of the Southwestern border fence and put odds that it would reach its year-end goal of 670 miles at "90% to 95%."
The no-match rule requires employers to give workers 90 days to clear up any discrepancy in their Social Security data, such as names and numbers that do not correspond to government records. If a mismatch can't be resolved, the worker must be fired or the firm runs the risk of federal prosecution.
As part of the injunction last year, Homeland Security was ordered to examine the rule's potential effect on small businesses, and it determined it would cost up to $36,624 a year for the largest small businesses to comply, not including the costs of termination and replacement of workers.
Some business owners were dismayed by Thursday's announcement.
"Local folks do not want to do the hard manual labor," said Jim Wilson, owner of a suburban Minneapolis nursery.
"People act as if we just pay enough, we'll get the [American] workers," said Sheridan Bailey, who owns an Arizona steel fabrication business where the hourly pay has increased to $22 this year, from $15.43 in 2006. "It doesn't matter how much you pay, you can't get blood out of a turnip if the workers aren't there."
Chertoff was not sympathetic. "Making money is not a sufficient justification for violating the rule," he said.
But Bailey said the issue was not making money, but survival. "We have to have labor; we can't do it without labor," he said.
Gaouette is a Times staff writer.