No to numbers plan

Advocates for immigrants protest use of Social Security against workers

October 12, 2007|By Kelly Brewington | Kelly Brewington,Sun reporter

A day after a federal judge ruled that the government could not use mismatched Social Security numbers to crack down on employers who hire illegal immigrants, a coalition of immigrant advocates, faith leaders and workers gathered near the Social Security Administration headquarters in Woodlawn to voice their outrage at the proposal.

The regulation is part of a recent Bush administration push to get tough on employers and weed out illegal immigrant workers.

But advocates said yesterday that the proposal encourages employers to fire millions of workers with questionable Social Security numbers, harming immigrants and citizens. A judge in San Francisco issued a preliminary injunction to block nationwide enforcement of the regulation, but advocates pledged to continue fighting.

Wednesday "was a historic day in the fight for worker rights," said Liz Weiss, senior policy analyst with Interfaith Worker Justice, a Chicago-based group of faith leaders who advocate for immigrant and low-income workers. "But we have a long way to go to prevent this devastating rule from coming to pass."

Weiss said the administration could appeal the decision.

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said he was disappointed by the judge's ruling, but that his agency would continue to clamp down on the hiring of illegal immigrant workers.

A study last year from the Pew Hispanic Center estimated the illegal immigrant work force at about 7.2 million.

Interfaith Worker Justice and Maryland immigrant advocacy group Casa of Maryland sponsored the gathering of about 100 people yesterday at St. Gabriel Roman Catholic Church, just blocks from SSA headquarters.

Some hoisted signs representing faith groups, while a group of workers held a banner in Spanish that read: "Justice for day laborers and the immigrant community."

Weiss said agency officials declined her group's request for a meeting to express their concerns. So after yesterday's gathering, faith leaders and advocates walked to Social Security headquarters to deliver a letter of opposition addressed to Commissioner Michael J. Astrue.

"The Social Security Administration exists to help people live with security," the letter stated. "Your Administration should never be turned into the immigration police."

In August, the Department of Homeland Security unveiled the rule related to "no-match" letters - notification that employers receive when the Social Security number listed on an employee's W-2 tax form does not match agency databases. If the worker cannot sort out the discrepancy within 90 days, the employer risks harsher penalties including fines and even criminal prosecution.

The American Civil Liberties Union, the AFL-CIO and business groups banded together to sue the federal government, arguing that homeland security did not have the legal capacity to implement the regulation. The rule was scheduled to go into effect in September, and Social Security officials planned to send about 140,000 "no-match" letters. On Aug. 31, a federal judge issued a temporary restraining order, and a hearing was held this month.

On Wednesday, Judge Charles R. Breyer of the U.S. District Court in San Francisco blocked the rule, warning the implementation could cause "irreparable harm to innocent workers and employers."

The plaintiffs said Social Security's database is rife with errors, and that many citizens receive letters.

Maria Welch, president of the Baltimore Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, said that six years ago she received a "no-match" letter after she married and changed her name. "It took six months to get straightened out," she said. "The government doesn't do anything in 90 days."

She said many chamber members fear the rule could force them to fire their employees.

"Large corporation or small, they are scared," she said. "They desperately need workers and want to do the right thing. They have processes in place, but they are not INS experts."

The SSA does not have the resources to handle the crush of people responding to letters, said Witold Skwierczynski, president of the local American Federal Government Employees, which represents the agency's employees.

"We have the lowest staffing levels since 1973," he said. "Anyone who has tried to visit a Social Security office or call the 800 number knows how difficult it is to get service. ... We likely will not be able to meet the 90-day requirement, resulting in people losing their job through no fault of their own."

kelly.brewington@baltsun.com

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