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Feds' no-match crackdown put on hold

October 5, 2007 | Page 3

LEE SUSTAR reports on a setback for the U.S. government's anti-immigrant offensive.

A FEDERAL judge has left in place a temporary court order blocking distribution of Social Security "no-match" letters that the federal government aimed to use as an immigration enforcement tool against millions of undocumented workers.

Judge Charles Breyer decided October 1 to maintain a temporary restraining order blocking the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) from using the Social Security Administration (SSA) database as evidence of workers' immigration status.

The order, issued August 31, was the result of a lawsuit against DHS filed in U.S. District Court in California by the AFL-CIO and joined by labor and immigrant rights groups--and, later, some business groups.

In the past, the SSA issued no-match letters when a discrepancy occurred between the Social Security numbers provided by workers and those on file with the SSA. While there was no requirement for employers to take action, many wrongly used the letter as evidence that workers were undocumented. As a result, say immigrant rights activists, thousands of workers have been wrongly terminated.

What you can do

To support the Ballco strike, visit the picket line at 2375 Liberty St. in Aurora, Ill. Donations can be sent c/o UE District 11, 37 S. Ashland Ave., Chicago, IL 60607, attn. Jorge Mújica. Workers with Social Security no-match issues can call 1-888-DIGNIDAD.

 

The SSA admits that its database has some 17 million errors, most of them involving U.S. citizens. Nevertheless, DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff now wants to use no-match letters as evidence that employers should have "constructive knowledge" of undocumented workers on their payroll.

Some 140,000 "no-match" letters affecting an estimated 8.7 million workers were scheduled to be mailed out to employers when the temporary restraining order blocked DHS from proceeding. If the rule were to take effect, millions of immigrant workers would be at immediate risk of termination, whether legally employed or not.

"There would be irreparable harm, serious irreparable injury" to workers with documents if the rule were to take effect, Judge Breyer said at an October 1 hearing. Breyer said he would decide within 10 days whether a preliminary injunction should be issued against the rule.

Breyer's action sets an encouraging tone as immigrant rights activists prepare for an October 12 day of action on the no-match issue.

"I think we have a strong case for the injunction going forward," said Brooke Anderson of the East Bay Alliance for a Sustainable Economy, who attended the hearing. "The lawyers for our side made the case that there would be widespread discrimination against Latinos if this rule is applied. And the majority of those whose Social Security numbers don't match those on file are, in fact, U.S. citizens."

One of the attorneys involved in the lawsuit is Ana Avendaño, assistant general counsel at the AFL-CIO and a federation spokesperson on immigrant rights. "The technical legal argument is that the DHS, by promulgating this regulation, is violating federal law, because it doesn't have the authority to do that," she said in an interview.

Chertoff's DHS "went way beyond its authority, trying to commandeer the database of SSA for immigration purposes," Avendaño said. "And it admittedly can't do that because of other legal restrictions based on the privacy act and the IRS Code. Legally, it's trying to use this scheme unlawfully.

"At the same time, this is all, in our opinion, a ploy by the Bush administration to look tough to the extreme right wing while knowing that it can't really use no-match letters for immigration enforcement. It is scaring the community, so it is accomplishing its purpose."

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IF THE new DHS rule is allowed to take effect, it would turn U.S. employers into immigration enforcers.

In an article addressed to employers, immigration attorney Jessica Mols explained how the process would work if the courts allow it. While DHS and its Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) bureau cannot have access to lists of employers who receive no-match letters, she wrote, "DHS may learn of the no-match letters as part of discovery during an investigation or audit, or when a subpoena is served on the SSA as part of an enforcement action."

She continued: "If the employer is unable to resolve the discrepancy and cannot verify the employee's identity and work authorization using different documents, the employer must terminate the employee" or risk being found in violation of federal immigration laws.

Thus, the new DHS rule on no-match letters puts pressure on employers to back George W. Bush's version of immigration "reform," which included a guest-worker program and a highly limited "path to legalization" for the undocumented.

"The DHS and Chertoff's own statement when the rule was released is clear," said Monica Guizar, an attorney at the National Immigration Law Center, which is involved the lawsuit against the rule.

"The reason why DHS has issued this rule is because of the fact that Congress has failed to act, and is responding to the fact that there has been no meaningful comprehensive immigration reform. Yet there is political anti-immigrant sentiment to enforce immigration laws and to do something about the millions of undocumented individuals who live and work in this country."

Guizar stressed that employers who are already using no-match letters to threaten or terminate workers are doing so wrongfully.

"If an employee receives such a no-match letter at home and there's a discrepancy with SSA, the employee has the right to correct that information," she said. "If an employer receives a no-match letter from the SSA for an individual employee, workers can best protect themselves by not panicking--that because of a no-match letter, this means there will be an ICE raid or an immigration enforcement action."

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BUT EMPLOYERS are using no-match letters--or even the threat of them--to intimidate workers.

In Aurora, Ill., eight Mexican immigrant workers at the Ballco Manufacturing Co. ball bearing maker were fired in mid-September after management claimed it had received no-match letters--although none have yet been produced. Another two dozen workers walked off the job in a one-day solidarity strike and were fired.

The United Electrical (UE) workers union immediately became involved after workers contacted the union's new no-match hotline.

UE's coordinator for the hotline, longtime immigrant rights organizer Jorge Mújica, is part of a labor-backed coalition in Chicago opposing the expanded use of no-match letters. The coalition made the call for a day of action October 12--Columbus Day--"because it's historically a day of resistance in Latin America" he said. The action will take a variety of forms around the U.S., from a march and rally in downtown Chicago to pickets at Social Security offices in various cities.

Organized labor in Chicago saw the possibility of organizing around the issue of no-match not only because of the threat of the new rule, but because of immigrant workers' willingness to fight.

For example, about 100 nonunion workers at the Cygnus Corp. soap factory in South Chicago won a two-week strike that defeated management's efforts to fire many workers over no-match letters. "Cygnus was the decisive thing," said Mújica, who was a key adviser to workers during the strike.

According to the AFL-CIO's Avendaño, the struggle at workplaces like Cygnus and Ballco are essential to backing up the legal fight against no-match letters--especially since employers will continue to use them to harass or terminate workers, with or without the new DHS rule.

Strikes and protests, she said, are "exactly the response the community has to have to be ready for these no-match letters. There's an incredible strength and power in that. We have to be prepared."

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