Why US immigration crackdown is stalled
Mismatched Social Security numbers led to illegal workers – but also legal ones, critics say.
His name is Enrique. Like an estimated 17 million others, when he files his 1040 to pay taxes, the Social Security number he uses does not match his name.Skip to next paragraph
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For some people, it's because they've changed names or been married – or their employer made a clerical error. Enrique makes no bones about his mismatch; it's because he's not a legal citizen.
Those different explanations for the discrepancies in the Social Security Administration's files are at the center of one of the most heated immigration debates of the year.
Since Congress failed to enact comprehensive immigration reform in June, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has aggressively moved to use Social Security filings to ferret out illegal immigrants. Their target is employers who don't fire workers who have questionable Social Security numbers.
But a crucial, unresolved question is whether the bulk of these mismatches involve legal workers, who could be fired because of a clerical mishap, or illegal immigrants, abusing a system that has long tolerated, and some say even encouraged, their work in the US.
Last week, a federal judge in San Francisco ruled DHS's methods would cause "serious irreparable harm" to workers and employers and put off implementation of the rule indefinitely. He concluded that too many legal workers would be harmed.
DHS is expected to appeal the decision. "We are examining all of the options," says DHS spokeswoman Veronica Nur Valdes.
One of the biggest problems that prompted the judge to halt DHS's plan is the size and complexity of the federal records involved. Each year the Social Security Administration (SSA) processes more than 250 million wage reports from employers. The information is used to determine future Social Security, disability, and survivor benefits for each eligible worker. Last year, an estimated 4 percent of the wage reports had an employee's name that didn't match the corresponding Social Security number – that's about 8 million mismatches. In total, the SSA has 435 million records in its database. A 2006 report by the SSA's inspector general found a total of 17.8 million of those records contained errors.
Advocates of using Social Security numbers to discourage employers from hiring illegal immigrants contend it is in all workers' best interest to correct any inconsistencies, since that database will determine future benefits.
"Nothing is 100 percent perfect," says Ira Mehlman, a spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a nonprofit group in Washington, D.C. "The procedures allow 90 days to rectify any errors – and quite frankly, if there are any errors about me, I'd rather find out about it now, rather than when I file for benefits."
He and other advocates note that the law requiring correction of Social Security mismatches has been on the books since 1986. Every year, the SSA sends out more than 100,000 letters warning employers if there are mismatches, but there has been little enforcement. The decision by DHS to include a set of procedures for rectifying the problems – as well as a listing of penalties of up to $11,000 per employee for failure to do so – is a simple way to enforce current law, they say.