WASHINGTON, D.C. -- In a final drive to toughen immigration enforcement, the Bush administration will again try to institute a system that would force employers to fire workers who have discrepancies in their Social Security data.
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said last Thursday that he will ask a federal judge to lift an injunction imposed against the "no-match" rule after foes ranging from the American Civil Liberties Union to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce sued to stop it last year.
The move could affect millions of workers -- citizens and immigrants alike -- and continues to draw fierce opposition from business, civil liberties and immigrant advocate groups.
In an annual address on border enforcement and illegal immigration, Chertoff said he expected continued resistance to the rule, but said his agency has addressed concerns raised in the lawsuit.
Under the rule, businesses could be prosecuted for failing to respond to notices from the Social Security Administration that workers' information does not match data on file with the government, often an indicator of illegal immigration, but frequently the result of simple inconsistencies or clerical errors.
The no-match rule would be part of the Bush administration's wide-ranging crackdown on illegal immigration, a campaign that also involves controversial mass workplace raids and requirements that federal contractors verify that every employee is authorized to work.
With less than three months before a new administration comes to power, Chertoff used the annual address to try to hammer out a legacy for himself and his young agency, founded in 2003. Chertoff declared that Homeland Security has made unprecedented progress in slowing the flow of migrants crossing the border.
"For the first year in many years that anybody can remember, the efforts we've undertaken at the border have begun to turn the tide of illegal immigration," Chertoff said, citing a flat or declining number of illegal immigrants in the country, more aggressive enforcement at work sites and greater levels of infrastructure and personnel at the border.
"Many of the things we've accomplished are things that people thought we couldn't do," Chertoff said. "We've done more in five years than has been accomplished in decades before."
The Homeland Security chief said the next administration should maintain current levels of enforcement and urged Congress to return to the controversial issue of comprehensive immigration reform, an issue lawmakers abandoned after reform efforts sputtered last year.
Chertoff said that the crackdown would cast immigration reform in a more favorable light.
"Americans will soon say 'OK, it's now time to allow more legal immigrants in,' " he said. "Ultimately, we're going to have to go back to Congress and ask for comprehensive immigration reform."
The no-match rule requires employers to give a worker 90 days to clear up any discrepancy in their Social Security data, such as names and numbers that do not correspond to government records. If the mismatch can't be resolved, the worker must be fired, or the company runs the risk of federal prosecution.
As part of the injunction last year, the agency was ordered to examine the rule's potential impact on small businesses and determined it would cost up to $36,624 a year for the largest small businesses to comply, not including the costs of termination and replacement of workers.
Some business owners were dismayed by Thursday's announcement.
"Local folks do not want to do the hard manual labor," said Jim Wilson, owner of a suburban Minneapolis nursery. "People act as if we just pay enough, we'll get the (American) workers," said Sheridan Bailey, who owns an Arizona steel fabrication business where the hourly pay has gone from $15.43 in 2006 to $22 this year. "It doesn't matter how much you pay; you can't get blood out of a turnip if the workers aren't there."
Chertoff was not sympathetic. "Making money is not a sufficient justification for violating the rule," he said.
But Bailey said the issue was not making money, but survival. "We have to have labor; we can't do it without labor," he said.