Carl Horowitz

That labor unions have become champions of the right of illegal immigrants to remain in this country is hardly news. Back in 2000, the AFL-CIO, pushed by its president, John Sweeney, issued a statement supporting unconditional amnesty for illegal workers and their families. It was the culmination of a national campaign by organized labor to demand our government legalize the status of millions of "undocumented" workers.

But Sweeney and other federation officials want to do more than simply issue press releases and pass resolutions. Last month, they went to federal court in San Francisco to help block a new Bush administration rule from taking effect. On August 31, they scored an initial victory. U.S. District Judge Maxine M. Chesney, a Clinton appointee, issued a temporary restraining order barring the Department of Homeland Security from mailing out notices to about 140,000 employers, covering about 8.7 million workers, warning them about suspicious Social Security numbers (SSNs). These "no-match" letters, as they are known, would indicate the penalties for failing to resolve paperwork discrepancies.

Phony Social Security numbers, like phony state driver's licenses, have been a major reason for high levels of illegal immigration over the past couple decades. DHS, aware of this, on August 10 issued a rule clarification.

The new rule would update a practice established more than 20 years ago, namely that employers must verify that employees have a valid Social Security number. This provision was part of the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA), though it has been only sporadically enforced. Under IRCA, when employers file annual tax withholding reports, the Social Security Administration (SSA) matches the information to the name, address and SSN provided by the employee. Any mismatches are posted to the SSA's Earnings Suspense File, which contains seven decades' worth of employee data. Whenever an employer is notified of a discrepancy, he must notify the affected employee.

Now the Social Security Administration has found that up to 10 percent of all U.S. employees have suspect numbers. But a crackdown is harder than it looks. For one thing, fraud is only one reason for a potential mismatch. Other reasons include typographical errors, confusion over name changes, and multiple surnames (the latter problem especially prevalent among Asians and Hispanics). And mistakes are prevalent. According to a 2006 report by the SSA's Office of the Inspector General, 17.8 million of the agency's 435 million records contained at least one discrepancy. About 70 percent of the records in error corresponded to native-born U.S. citizens rather than immigrants, legal or otherwise.

Carl Horowitz

Carl F. Horowitz is director of the Organized Labor Accountability Project of the National Legal and Policy Center, a Gold Partner organization dedicated to promoting ethics in American public life.
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