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U.S. unveils illegal-hire rules

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U.S. unveils illegal-hire rules
Firms that don't comply can be prosecuted
Mike Madden
Republic Washington Bureau
Aug. 11, 2007 12:00 AM

WASHINGTON - Businesses whose employees use fake Social Security numbers could be prosecuted if they don't fix the problem, according to new rules announced Friday by the Bush administration.

The rules, intended to make it harder for illegal immigrants to get jobs, will require employers to show they verified their workers' identities or fired them within 90 days of getting a letter from the government notifying them of Social Security numbers that don't match the government's database. If companies fail to act, immigration authorities could use that against them in any case involving hiring illegal workers.

The rules also increase the maximum fine by 25 percent to $10,000 for companies that knowingly employ illegal immigrants. Fines are not mandatory, however. The new rules take effect in 30 days.

The effectiveness of the rules depends to a great extent on whether the government has enough resources to go after companies who persist in breaking the law, some immigration experts said.

Privacy laws make it difficult for immigration-enforcement agents to work directly with Social Security officials to find employers who hire large numbers of workers with phony IDs.

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said the rules will serve as a deterrent, plus the administration is seeking more money in next year's budget for enforcement agents.

"Ultimately, these guidelines will make it more difficult for illegal aliens to use a fraudulent Social Security number to get a job and will help employers take appropriate action to protect themselves," Chertoff said.

Immigrant-advocacy groups were skeptical.

"The administration is seeking cheap political points by bolstering tactics that are already flawed and failing," said Eliseo Medina, vice president of the Service Employees International Union, which represents immigrant workers.

The Social Security Administration estimated last year that about one in every 20 workers, or as many as 7.3 million out of 146 million workers, used Social Security numbers that didn't belong to them.

Businesses now are required to make only a cursory check of new employees' documents. They do not have to verify workers' Social Security numbers even when notified of an error or non-existent number by the federal government. Some employers choose to verify through the voluntary, Web-based Basic Pilot Program. In January, a new Arizona law will require all businesses in the state to use Basic Pilot.

The Bush administration said it will move to expand use of that program and rename it E-Verify. It will propose new rules that would require all federal contractors to use E-Verify to confirm the identities of their employees. Also, photos submitted when foreigners apply for work permits or immigration papers will be put into government databases; that will allow companies using E-Verify to compare the original government-issued documents with the employees'.

Officials also announced several new border-security measures Friday, including plans to record the identity of foreign citizens who leave the United States by airplane by the end of next year. The purpose is to keep track of whether people are complying with temporary visas.

Business groups say if the new verification rules force employers to lay off undocumented workers, they may have no way to fill those vacancies.

"We do face well-established worker shortages in some industries, and we do have undocumented workers here who are holding jobs that need to be filled," said Randy Johnson, vice president for labor, immigration and employer benefits at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. "The existing immigration law is dysfunctional and doesn't meet our needs."

The agriculture industry, about a quarter of whose workforce is undocumented, according to the Pew Hispanic Center, strongly opposed the new rules.

"Concerns over immigration and undocumented employees cannot be fixed with the types of Band-Aid solutions Homeland Security is offering," said a joint statement by the United Farm Workers of America, a labor union, and a coalition of farmers and agricultural businesses, the Agriculture Coalition for Immigration Reform.

Administration officials said Congress still needs to pass immigration reforms like those that failed earlier this year. The rules could put more political pressure on lawmakers to act, especially if businesses face significant compliance costs.

Some lawmakers offered modest praise for the new regulations.

"Americans want to know that the government is serious about enforcing our borders and reducing illegal immigration," said Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., a key player in the failed efforts to overhaul immigration laws this year.

"To that end, today's announcement by the White House is encouraging," Kyl added.

A frequent critic of the administration's immigration policy also said the new rules were a good step.

"Better late than never," said Steve Camorata, research director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington organization that advocates reduced immigration. "The big losers here are not consumers and not employers. The big losers are going to be illegal immigrants."

Massachusetts Sen. Edward Kennedy, who was Kyl's Democratic negotiating partner during the immigration debate, said the new rules will make the current system worse by generating "even more confusion" about who can or cannot legally work in the United States.

Reach the reporter at mike.madden@arizonarepublic.com or 1-(202)-906-8123.