Last week, President Bush announced a vague plan to deal with the 8 to 12 million undocumented immigrants in the United States. The plan has been denounced because it fails to guarantee what SEIU Executive Vice President Eliseo Medina calls “a new road to citizenship” for the undocumented. Juan Salgado, president of the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights in Chicago, said, “It appears President Bush wants our sweat, our work, and our taxes … but we can leave our families and our vote in Mexico.”

Meanwhile, undocumented immigrant workers are being hammered hard by the Bush administration. Over the past year and a half, hundreds of thousands of “no-match” letters covering millions of employees have been sent by the Social Security Administration. These letters inform employers that the Social Security numbers they have submitted with employee paperwork do not match SSA records. This is being done supposedly to assure that Social Security checks go to the right people (the amount of Social Security money involved in accounts with problem SS numbers is now over $50 billion). But a new national study shows that these letters are ineffective and, worse, are being abused by employers for anti-immigrant and even union-busting purposes.

The study was directed by Chirag Mehta and Nik Theodore of the Center for Urban Economic Development at the University of Illinois-Chicago, and Marielena Hincapie of the National Immigration Law Center. It looked at the effectiveness of no-match letters in clearing up Social Security records, and their impact on workers, especially immigrants. The research relied on the cooperation of a large number of unions, churches and immigrants’ rights organizations over the summer of 2003.

Employers have generally assumed that any employee for whom a no-match letter is received is undocumented, which is often, though not always, indeed the case. Though later editions of the letter, modified under pressure from unions and immigrants’ rights groups, have clarified that the employer is not supposed to take any “adverse action” against the employee, many employers have done just that, throwing immigrant communities into a crisis.

Many employers have summarily fired such employees, or have given them impossible deadlines to come up with “a new Social Security number.” The fired employee is sometimes rehired at lower pay, stripped of seniority or benefits or both. These firings are motivated by a combination of fear by employers that they will be punished for hiring the undocumented, and a desire to maximize profits.

In 21 percent of the cases studied, employees stated that no-match letters were used to sanction or threaten workers who were involved in union activities in 25 percent of the cases, workers who had spoken up about conditions on the job were sanctioned. A California supermarket worker charged that during a unionization drive, “The market fired 60 workers, all immigrants. … The management used these letters only against workers who were pro-union, and not those workers who were pro-company.”

Yet in some cases, when employees did not cooperate with demands of the employers, nothing happened to them. (Information from other sources suggests that when employees, their union or friendly community forces put pressure on companies, they often back off on firing people because of a no-match letter.)

No-match letters turn out to be an ineffective way of clarifying Social Security records. Thus far, no-match letters have been credited in clearing up only 2 percent of the records that have been straightened out, and there are other methods that are more effective. Mehta, Theodore and Hincapie conclude that the no-match letters have become a de facto immigrant enforcement mechanism, which they were neither designed nor legally mandated to be. Workers fired because of no-match letters do not leave the country, but are simply recycled through the labor market at lower wages and working conditions, catalyzing “a policy-induced churning in local labor markets as workers are either fired or quit their jobs only to join the overcrowded pool of workers vying for positions in traditional immigrant occupations.” This undercuts the position of all workers.

Superficially, the type of guest worker program proposed by President Bush would “solve” this problem by giving immigrant workers – in the shaky eventuality that they qualify for the program – temporary identification documents. However, these will come at a price: the Bush plan by no means guarantees continued authorization to remain and work in the U.S., and at the same time it forces undocumented workers to come forward and put themselves into the hands of the very authorities who may decide to deport them. In this, it resembles the “special registration” plan recently inflicted on persons from Muslim countries living in the U.S., which proved to be such a catastrophe due to the thousands who came forward to try to comply with the program, only to be thrown into jail and then out of the country.

Emile Schepers is an activist in Chicago. He can be reached at pww@pww.org.