By N.C. Aizenman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 11, 2007
A month after immigration restructuring failed in Congress, the Bush administration yesterday mapped a broad campaign to tighten border security and to pressure employers to fire illegal immigrant workers.
The 26 measures -- most of which continue or expand on current policies -- include raising fines for knowingly hiring illegal workers, streamlining current guest-worker programs, bolstering an electronic system employers can use to verify workers' legal status, and adding 370 miles of border fencing, 300 miles of vehicle barriers and 1,700 Border Patrol agents.
"These reforms represent steps my administration can take within the boundaries of existing law," President Bush said in a statement released shortly after Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and Commerce Secretary Carlos M. Gutierrez presented the plan at a news conference. "Although the Congress has not addressed our broken immigration system by passing comprehensive reform legislation, my administration will continue to take every possible step to build upon the progress already made in strengthening our borders, enforcing our worksite laws, keeping our economy well-supplied with vital workers, and helping new Americans learn English."
Republicans offered a mixed reaction to the move -- just as they had to the failed legislation.
"It's a huge political issue, and a huge chunk of the population and a big part of the Republican Party base is demanding something be done," said GOP strategist Ed Rogers. "I hope the point is to establish credibility so maybe the next president has a better opportunity to really fix the problem."
By contrast, many Democrats, immigrant advocates and business representatives expressed skepticism and alarm.
"Sadly, the administration's proposal would make our immigration crisis worse," said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), one of the key negotiators of the compromise immigration bill that failed in the Senate. "[It] will only exacerbate the already serious problems of our immigration system by causing even more confusion about who can be hired, resulting in the unjust firings of legal workers who look foreign and driving more hardworking people into the shadows."
The impact on immigrant-dependent industries such as construction and agriculture -- whose workforce is at least two-thirds illegal -- would be "devastating," predicted Craig Regelbrugge, government relations director for the American Nursery & Landscape Association.
"There's no replacement workforce," he said. "This will give people a set of bad choices: Either they terminate their workers, or they take a deep breath and duck and hope the law doesn't catch up with them. Or, for a lot of people, they're just going to make the decision to get out of the business."
Particularly controversial are new guidelines for employers who receive a "no-match" letter from the Social Security Administration informing them that 10 or more of their employees have Social Security numbers that do not correspond with government records.
The administration issues about 130,000 no-match letters a year. Many are the result of innocent mistakes -- a worker miswrote his Social Security number on a form, for example, or failed to notify the government of her new, married name.
But a no-match often is an indicator that the worker is among the estimated 8 million illegal immigrants working in the United States.
Federal prosecutors have occasionally used an employer's disregard of no-match letters as evidence that he or she knowingly hired illegal immigrants -- a violation of federal law. But until now, employers were given few guidelines as to how to respond to the notices and have frequently ignored them.
The new regulations -- which will take effect next month -- offer employers "safe harbor" from prosecution if they require their employee to resolve the no-match discrepancy within 90 days -- for instance, by contacting the appropriate government agency to correct mistaken records. If the worker is unable to do so, the employer must terminate the worker or face criminal liability.
The Social Security Administration does not alert immigration authorities when it sends out no-match letters, so the new regulations are unlikely to trigger a sudden wave of prosecutions.
But Randel Johnson of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce said most employers are unlikely to consider such nuances -- particularly in light of the increased civil penalties and recently stepped-up enforcement of immigration law.
Immigration authorities have increased criminal arrests of both employers and employees from 24 in fiscal 1999 to 716 in 2006. And they appear on track to double that number this year.
"Look, employers are going to want to protect themselves, so, de facto nearly all employers are going to follow the new rules," Johnson said. "And that is going to have a serious impact in certain industries."
Kathleen Walker, president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, said she is worried that employers may open themselves to civil rights lawsuits when they fire a legal worker who is unable to resolve his case within 90 days.
"Even if you're a legal worker, good luck trying to get an appointment with the Social Security Administration in time, let alone resolving your case," she said. "And then the employer gets put between the proverbial rock and the hard place."
She and others also questioned the effectiveness of an existing computer program to check employment eligibility that the administration will expand and give a new name, E-Verify.
The program -- which matches information for employees with more than 425 million Social Security records and 60 million homeland security records -- now is used by 19,000 employers.
Under the new plan announced by Chertoff, the government would initiate a rulemaking process to require federal contractors and vendors -- about 200,000 companies -- to use it.
Walker said E-Verify does not include a complete array of immigration records and has a substantial error rate.
Others criticized the administration's attempt to eliminate delays in obtaining approval for seasonal agricultural and low-skilled non-agricultural workers under two existing guest-worker programs.
"There is not an administrative solution, and tinkering with the regulations is not going to solve the problem," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), co-sponsor with Sen. Larry E. Craig (R-Idaho) of a bill that would overhaul the nation's agricultural jobs sector. "The administration's approach is a Band-Aid that will not stop the looming crisis American agriculture will face this fall. The crisis is that crops will not be harvested."
Staff writers Anne E. Kornblut, Karin Brulliard and Spencer S. Hsu and political researcher Zachary A. Goldfarb contributed to this report.