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Planned Crackdown on Immigrants Denounced

By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 30, 2007

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO this week separately assailed a new White House-backed crackdown on illegal immigration, warning of massive disruptions to the economy and headaches for U.S. citizens if the proposal goes ahead as planned in the coming days.

The Bush administration intends to begin writing to 140,000 employers on Tuesday regarding suspect Social Security numbers used by an estimated 8.7 million workers, as a way of pressuring them to fire illegal immigrants. President Bush disclosed the plan three weeks ago as part of a repackaged, 26-point enforcement program after Congress failed to overhaul U.S. immigration laws this summer.

But leaders of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and a coalition of trade groups representing the politically influential construction, lodging, farming, meatpacking, restaurant, retail and service industries appealed on Monday to the Department of Homeland Security and the Social Security Administration to postpone the plan's implementation for six months.

Raising the possibility of plant closings, autumn-harvest interruptions and other destabilizing consequences for the U.S. economy, 50 business organization members of the Essential Worker Immigration Coalition signed a letter warning of "uncertainties, disruptions, and dislocations throughout broad swaths of the workforce," as well as discrimination against Hispanic and immigrant workers.

Yesterday, the AFL-CIO, the American Civil Liberties Union, the National Immigration Law Center and local labor groups separately asked a federal judge in San Francisco to stop the mass mailing and kill the plan outright. They alleged that the DHS is overstepping its authority to enforce immigration laws and is misapplying the Social Security system in a way that will unfairly penalize law-abiding workers and employers.

The groups said that inaccurate federal databases could sweep U.S. citizens and legal residents into a bureaucratic morass. The Social Security database used to cull suspicious numbers contains erroneous records on 17.8 million people, including 12.7 million native-born U.S. citizens, the Social Security Administration's inspector general reported last year.

"This rule is a new tool to repress workers' rights in the name of phony immigration enforcement," AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney said in a statement. The plan "will cause massive discrimination against anyone who looks or sounds 'foreign,' " said Lucas Guttentag, director of the ACLU's Immigrants' Rights Project.

In a statement, Department of Homeland Security spokesman Russ Knocke called the lawsuit "completely without merit, and we intend to fight it vigorously."

Asked about the business coalition's request for a six-month reprieve, Knocke said: "The list of signatures tells you why immigration reform has been hard, and why we often face enforcement challenges. Still, we're going to restore public credibility on enforcement."

The attacks from the left and the right come as Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff warns of "serious" and "unhappy consequences" for the sectors of the U.S. economy that depend on illegal labor, explaining that these are the costs of reestablishing voters' confidence.

Administration officials have blamed the congressional defeat of an immigration overhaul package partly on Washington's failure to back up its tough rhetoric on illegal immigration with action, saying that political hypocrisy particularly undermined support among conservative groups.

"Historically, whenever any administration has tried to enforce the laws that are on the books, they have received push back from stakeholders" and from "the same congressmen who say we need to be tough on immigration," said Deborah W. Meyers, an analyst at the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington.

Some experts speculated yesterday that the new enforcement effort might have the dual aim of solidifying Bush's standing among an unhappy part of the Republican Party's base and punishing business groups that did not adequately support the immigration overhaul package.

"I don't know if there's the will for it. Maybe it's too little, too late, but they're trying," said one congressional lobbyist, who said the administration appears to be trying to build pressure to revive the overhaul plan in Congress. The lobbyist spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.

Under the new rules, set to take effect on Sept. 14, employers that receive "no-match" letters have 90 days to resolve discrepancies. If they do not, the DHS may conclude that employers knowingly violated the law by employing illegal workers, opening the door to fines and even criminal arrests.

That approach marks a major change. The Social Security Administration has long sent "no-match" letters, and it has found that 4 to 10 percent of workers have suspect numbers because of typographical errors, name changes resulting from marriage or multiple surnames, as well as fraud. But, until now, it has not held employers liable.

The problem is greater in some industries. Farm groups estimate that 70 to 90 percent of field workers lack proper documents. Raids at meatpacking plants turn up discrepancies in about 30 percent of workers' documents.

Staff writer N.C. Aizenman contributed to this report.

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