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Undocumented workers could get bosses fined

Reply would be required to Social Security letters
By Hiram Soto
August 15, 2006

The federal government is considering new rules that would toughen laws against companies hiring undocumented immigrants.

The proposed regulations would require companies to respond promptly to letters from the government alerting them to discrepancies between the names of employees and their Social Security numbers, or else be liable for violating immigration laws.

Employers currently are under no obligation to respond to these “no-match” letters from the Social Security Administration; there are no criminal or administrative penalties.

But if the new regulations are enacted, companies would be liable for having “constructive knowledge” of hiring undocumented immigrants – if they were to be audited.

Civil fines for hiring unauthorized workers would range from $250 to $2,000 per employee, and to up to $10,000 for repeat offenders. Criminal penalties would include up to $3,000 in fines and six months in prison.

The new rules, proposed by the bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Department of Homeland Security, outline the time frame in which companies need to resolve the issue with their employees, from 30 to 90 days upon receiving a no-match letter.

The regulations state that after receiving a letter, a company would be required to verify the employee's information within 14 days. If the issue is not resolved, the company would be required to ask the employee to clarify the issue with the relevant agencies. If the matter is not resolved within 60 days, the company would be required to terminate the employee.

“It's what we've been asking for a long time,” said Lauren Mack, a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement representative.

“This way, employers now have to tell us what's going on with the employee or risk serious consequences,” she said. “With this, it would be easier to prosecute.”

Mack said proposed regulations usually become official about a month after the public-comment phase, which ended last week. But she added each regulation is different.

The number of unauthorized workers detained nationwide and the number of companies prosecuted is small, though both have been rising in the past few years.

The number of work site enforcement arrests in fiscal 2005 was 382, although the agency didn't specify how many were related to employer sanctions. Meanwhile, the number of employees arrested on suspicion of being unauthorized was about 2,100, according to government figures.

In fiscal 2005, the federal government sent 8.1 million no-match letters to companies.

The original purpose of no-match letters was to notify employees that they were not receiving proper credit for their earnings. But in recent years the letters have been used as an indicator of a worker's immigration status.

Rubén García, a professor at the California Western School of Law in San Diego, said the regulations are an easy way for the Bush administration to take action against illegal immigration without consulting Congress, which remains deadlocked on the subject.

Federal agencies such as Homeland Security have the authority to enact regulations. Although Congress has the power to overturn such rules, it rarely does, García said.

Last month, the government announced a voluntary certification program, in which companies receive training in how to detect false documents, and make a commitment to verify the Social Security numbers of their employees, among other things. In exchange, they receive assurances they will not be targeted for raids.