A federal judge ruled Wednesday that the government cannot use mismatched Social Security data to ferret out illegal immigrants from the work force, declaring that the enforcement would result in “irreparable harm to innocent workers and employees.”
In a major defeat for the Bush administration, U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer issued a preliminary injunction preventing the Department of Homeland Security from beginning a program to punish companies that do not clear up discrepancies between their workers’ names and Social Security numbers. The decision comes after labor, civil liberties and immigrant rights groups filed a lawsuit to stop the department from using Social Security “no-match” letters for immigration enforcement.
“The government’s proposal to disseminate no-match letters affecting more than eight million workers will, under the mandated time line, result in the termination of employment to lawfully employed workers,” Breyer wrote in a 22-page ruling.
Business groups hailed the decision.
“It’s a signal to the government that they can’t do anything they want simply by calling it enforcement,” said Randel Johnson, vice president at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. “The Department of Homeland Security overstepped its bounds on this one.”
Administration officials, groups opposing illegal immigration and some members of Congress were critical of the ruling.
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said he would consider a legal challenge or possibly issuing a modified rule that addresses the judge’s concerns. He said his department would continue pursuing other forms of employer enforcement, including criminal prosecution.
The injunction will remain in place until it is either overturned on appeal or when the judge makes a final ruling after trial, which could be months away, attorneys said.
For years, the Social Security Administration has been sending “no-match” letters to employers with workers whose names did not match their numbers on file, but the letters never had been used to sanction employers who might have hired illegal workers. To get jobs, undocumented immigrants often use false or stolen Social Security numbers.
Under the new regulation, Chertoff had warned companies that they could face possible criminal or civil liability if they received a letter and did not clear up the discrepancies within 90 days.
After Congress failed to agree on an overhaul of the nation’s immigration system this summer, the Bush administration announced a number of measures – including the no-match regulation – designed to increase immigration enforcement by administrative means.
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