Judge temporarily halts no-match letters

A federal judge for the 9th District in Los Angeles has issued a temporary injunction until Oct. 10 to stop the issuance by the Social Security Administration of a revised “no-match” letter that many feared would create massive economic disruption and injustice under the pretext of catching undocumented immigrants and their employers.

Immigrant rights advocates are encouraged by the decision, but point out that the repressive anti-immigrant tactics of the Bush administration will continue. They emphasize that mass actions, such as the demonstrations planned for Sept. 12 in Washington and elsewhere, in support of immigrant rights need to be greatly intensified if the temporary injunction is to become a permanent order stopping the government’s no-match blitz.

Judge Maxine Chesney issued the injunction on the petition of the AFL-CIO, the American Civil Liberties Union, the National Immigration Law Center, the Alameda County (California) Central Labor Council, the San Francisco Labor Council and other groups. It suspends the sending of the letters, which were to go out in batches starting after Labor Day, to 140,000 employers, and eventually covering the records of approximately 8 million workers in this go-around, with more to come. On Oct. 1, another judge will begin to hear substantive arguments on the suit.

No-match letters are sent to employers by the Social Security Administration when Social Security numbers submitted for their workers do not match the data in the government’s files. The reason may be that the workers are undocumented and are using fake or “borrowed” Social Security numbers. However, a misspelled name, an unreported change of surname due to a marriage, or a typographical error in inputting data into the computer can also generate a no-match letter.

Social Security Administration files on more than 17 million workers contain errors. The number of undocumented immigrants actually working in this country is around 8 million (The balance of the 11-12 million undocumented are not in the labor force.) So more than 9 million workers who are citizens or non-citizens legally authorized to work have defective files.

Up to now, no-match letters have specifically instructed employers not to fire or sanction the workers for whom letters are received, but they often fire them anyway. Employers have used no-match letters as pretexts to fire workers involved in unionization drives and labor actions. But because the firing was not authorized by the letter, it has often been possible for unions and community groups to get such workers rehired.

A number of unions, including the United Electrical workers (UE) and the United Food and Commercial Workers, managed to put language into their contracts specifying that the employer cannot fire a worker because of receipt of a no-match letter.

But now George W. Bush is pushing them to do just that. In April 2006, as a “get tough” response to the huge immigrant rights marches, Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff announced that the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) would regard the receipt of numerous no-match letters by workers in a specific company as sufficient cause to begin an investigation for possibly hiring undocumented workers.

On Aug. 10, President Bush announced that from here on in, companies that receive no-match letters for their workers must give the worker 90 days to clear up the matter, fire the worker, or face heavy fines and possible criminal prosecution.

The AFL-CIO/ACLU suit alleges that existing laws do not give the Department of Homeland Security any authority to use Social Security files for immigration enforcement purposes. Further, plaintiffs point out that not only undocumented workers but possibly millions of U.S. citizens and legal residents will find their lives disrupted by this new policy, many losing their jobs. And employment discrimination against Latinos, Asians and the foreign born or people with accents or foreign-sounding names will skyrocket as employers try to avoid trouble under the new sanctions.

Labor and immigrant rights activists point out that undocumented workers fired because of no-match letters will most likely not leave the country but will try to find another job and end up working under even worse conditions than before, to the detriment of all workers in the U.S.

AFL-CIO President John Sweeney hailed Chesney’s ruling: “We are very pleased that the judge recognized the need to halt the implementation of the DHS rule. Employers have historically used SSA no-match letters to exploit workers, and this rule would only give them a stronger pretext.”

Major businesses, especially those industries that are heavily reliant on immigrant labor, are also worried and have begun a campaign to reverse the policy change.

It is estimated that 70 percent or more of workers in agriculture in the United States are undocumented immigrants. Other fields, such as restaurants, hotels and construction, also have such high numbers of undocumented immigrant workers that their sudden disappearance would create major disruptions in the economy.