Renewed Crackdown On Illegal Immigrants

By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 24, 2008

The Bush administration in its final weeks will revive a stalled crackdown on U.S. companies that hire illegal immigrants, issuing a new regulation and asking a federal judge to lift a ban on the measure, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff announced yesterday.

If the court agrees, the government could begin mailing notices to 140,000 employers regarding suspect Social Security numbers used by an estimated 8.7 million workers, pressuring businesses to either resolve discrepancies or fire workers within 90 days.

Critics said the move would probably set off a new round of litigation that could outlast the president's waning term and leave the thorny issue of immigration enforcement to President Bush's successor to manage amid an economic downturn.

Bush unveiled the Social Security "no-match" letter initiative in August 2007 after the Senate failed to pass an immigration overhaul measure. However, the program was stayed by U.S. District Judge Charles R. Breyer of San Francisco, who wrote last year that the plan could have "staggering" and "severe" effects on workers and businesses.

The plan had been challenged in a lawsuit filed by the AFL-CIO and other unions, the American Civil Liberties Union and a cross-section of industry led by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Business groups say the administration failed to consider the cost of the plan to small businesses and to justify subjecting employers to possible criminal liability for the first time. Labor leaders and civil libertarians said the plan would lead to discrimination against many legal workers, including native-born Americans, because of errors in the government's Social Security database and in the program's structure.

Randel K. Johnson, a vice president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said his group was disappointed the government made virtually no changes in its revised final rule as it prepared to go back before Breyer.

"We are looking at our litigation options," Johnson said.

John Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO, accused the Bush administration of "leaving a disastrous parting gift to our new leadership."

Lucas Guttentag, director of the ACLU's Immigrants Rights Project, said, "Instead of fixing the database, the Bush administration has turned a blind eye to reality and is intent on punishing American workers in the middle of an economic meltdown."

Also yesterday, Chertoff delayed once more the Department of Homeland Security's estimate of when 670 miles of pedestrian and vehicle fencing on the U.S.-Mexico border will be completed. He said he expected "90 to 95 percent" of the fence to be built or underway by Jan. 20, when Bush leaves office.

Last month, Chertoff said the border fence, which Congress ordered done by year-end, would be fully completed or underway by that time.

Still Chertoff said the government was "turning the tide on illegal immigration," citing decreasing border arrests, immigrants' remittances to their home countries and estimates of the number of illegal immigrants in the United States.

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