“No-Match Letter” Issue Put On Hold By Court

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Wednesday, October 10, 2007 – 11:43 PDT SAN FRANCISCO – A federal judge in San Francisco barred the Bush administration today from threatening to prosecute businesses for knowingly employing illegal immigrants if they fail to fire workers whose Social Security numbers don’t match government records.
U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer issued a nationwide preliminary injunction barring the government from enforcing the so-called no-match rule, which was scheduled to take effect last month but was blocked by temporary restraining orders from Breyer and another judge. Today’s order remains in effect until a suit by labor unions challenging the rule goes to trial sometime next year or until a higher court intervenes.
The administration had planned to send 140,000 letters this fall to employers with a total workforce of 8 million, alerting them to possible discrepancies. Any business with an employee whose Social Security number on a W-2 tax form did not match the government’s database would have been given 90 days to resolve the discrepancy or fire the worker.
After that, the employer would be subject to civil fines or criminal prosecution under a 1986 law that prohibits businesses from knowingly employing illegal immigrants.
In their lawsuit, unions said the no-match rule would lead to widespread firings of legal employees, including hundreds of thousands of union members. They said the government and employers commonly make clerical errors that lead to no-match letters, and that name changes for reasons including marriage and divorce often prompt similar confusion.
Breyer did not rule today on the merits of the lawsuit, which claimed the new rule was unauthorized by law. But he said unions and business groups that supported the challenge had raised serious questions’ about the legality of the Bush administration’s proposal.
Among other things, he said, immigration officials “did not supply a reasoned analysis” for their decision to reverse a decade-old government policy of not prosecuting employers on the basis of a discrepancy in a worker’s Social Security number.
“Needless to say, this change in position will have massive ramifications for how employers treat the receipt of no-match letters,” Breyer wrote. He said the Homeland Security Department “may well have the authority to change its position, but because (the department) did so without a reasoned analysis, there is at least a serious question whether the agency has casually ignored prior precedent” in violation of the law.
The judge also said employees and businesses would be harmed far more by enforcement of the disputed rule than any hardship the government would suffer from a delay.
“There is a strong likelihood that employers may simply fire employees who are unable to resolve the discrepancy within 90 days, even if the employees are actually authorized to work,” Breyer said.

E-mail Bob Egelko at begelko@sfchronicle.com