Court halts immigrant worker crackdown

SAN FRANCISCO -- A federal judge Wednesday granted a request by labor and civil liberties organizations to temporarily block the U.S. government from proceeding with a program to crack down on businesses that may be employing illegal immigrants.

U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer said the Social Security Administration and the Department of Homeland Security could not go ahead with their plan to send joint letters warning businesses they'll face penalties if they keep workers whose Social Security numbers don't match their names.

Breyer said the new work-site rule would likely impose hardships on businesses and their workers. Employers would incur new costs to comply with the regulation that the government hasn't evaluated, and innocent workers unable to correct mistakes in their records in the given time would lose their jobs, the judge wrote.

"The plaintiffs have demonstrated they will be irreparably harmed if DHS is permitted to enforce the new rule," Breyer wrote.

The so-called "no match" letters, including a Department of Homeland Security warning, were supposed to start going out in September but were held after labor groups and immigrant activists filed a federal lawsuit.

The government had about 140,000 letters ready to go, each containing the names of 10 or more employees with mismatches in their records. About 8 million employees would be affected, according to court documents.

The preliminary injunction was well received by a Clovis factory owner as well as leaders of the agricultural industry in the central San Joaquin Valley.

"We think the injunction is really encouraging news," said Barry Bedwell, who heads the California Grape and Tree Fruit League. "The judge recognizes that some of the arguments against the no-match rule have apparent merit. We're anxious to discuss those issues further. At the same time, we're telling our members they have to be ready for implementation of that rule."

Bedwell and Manuel Cunha Jr., president of the Nisei Farmers League in Fresno, were among 90 people who gathered at the Fresno County Farm Bureau last week to discuss the issue.

The meeting drew growers as well as people representing restaurants, hotels and manufacturing companies, Cunha said.

"We told those at the meeting that we believed the judge would be understanding, that he would recognize [the proposed government action] would circumvent privacy law. We said, 'Don't do anything differently than you're doing now. Don't panic and fire people."

Cunha said farm leaders had warned Homeland Security a year and a half ago that it would be overstepping its authority if it rewrote legislation to say that mismatches meant illegality. "They tried to rewrite statute by regulation. They knew they couldn't get the legislation," he said.

Ed Hawke, owner of the Clovis-based Hawkepaks, which makes equipment bags, vests and packs for public service agencies, said the Social Security Administration is making it clear that workers should not be terminated on the basis of a mismatch. Homeland Security is seeking a 90-day verification period that must be met. If not, penalties would be levied.

Hawke said the jobs of at least two employees at his company could be in jeopardy if the rule is enforced.

"Every day I depend on people who have these skills," he said. "We don't need our economy to grind to a halt."

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said the decision Wednesday was disappointing, but wasn't more than a "bump in the road" in the agency's drive to vigorously enforce laws aimed at keeping illegal immigrants out of the work force.

The government will evaluate the "modest legal obstacles" presented by the judge, addressing them in litigation or outside court, as it examines its options and determines whether to appeal the decision, Chertoff said.

"I don't think there's anything in the judge's ruling that is insurmountable," Chertoff told The Associated Press by telephone.

"The key is to move forward. We're committed to using every tool available to enforce our immigration laws."

But plaintiffs, which include the AFL-CIO, the American Civil Liberties Union and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, saw the decision as a significant victory against a program they believe would foster discrimination on the work site, lead to job losses by lawful employees and expose businesses to additional expenses and the fear of prosecution.

"Judge Breyer's decision today reassures authorized workers and U.S. citizens that their rights will be protected," said Marielena Hincapie, with the National Immigration Law Center, an attorney on the case. "We're very pleased to find the court held there is a serious question whether the Department of Homeland Security has exceeded its authority."