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Government steps up penalties for employers of illegal workers

WASHINGTON Foodservice operators who employ illegal immigrants could face increased fines under a new series of enforcement measures announced today by the Bush administration.

The Department of Homeland Security said it plans to crack down on illegal immigrants by requiring employers to fire workers who have been found to use false or questionable Social Security numbers. The rule requires that employers fire any individuals who can’t be verified as legal workers and can’t resolve within 90 days why the name or Social Security number on their W-2 doesn’t match the government’s database.

The Social Security Administration said it plans to send out about 15,000 “no match” letters a week to businesses over a two-month period. The regulation takes effect in 30 days.

The Social Security Administration has sent “no match” letters to employers and workers for years, but employers were responsible only for notifying workers of the discrepancies. Under the new rule, employers that do not fire the workers upon notification could be fined $250 to $10,000 per illegal worker and incident. That would represent a boost in previous fines by 25 percent.

There are an estimated 1.4 million illegal immigrants working in the foodservice industry.

“It’s going to be a hardship for a lot of employers out there,” said Scott Vinson, vice president of government relations for the National Council of Chain Restaurants in Washington, D.C. “Especially for employers who hire a lot of people every year.”

Ironically, this enforcement rule stands to penalize only those operators who attempt to comply with the law by filing I-9 forms with the government, Vinson said.

“This does not get at the people in the underground economy who don’t even try to comply,” he said. “It will just punish the good employers.”

One aspect of the new enforcement regulations that the NCCR does applaud is the government’s decision to reduce the number of documents an employee can use to prove work eligibility.

“Currently, there are 29 documents that can be used, including report cards from school,” Vinson said. “We welcome that change.”

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said the government does not intend to punish employers that make honest mistakes.

Chertoff said his department would step up criminal investigations against employers that knowingly hire a large number of illegal immigrants. The department has made 742 arrests so far this year, compared with 24 arrests in 1999.

The new rules also would require federal contractors to use the government’s employment verification system, correct processing delays in the H2B program for hiring seasonal workers and reduce the number of documents employers can accept to verify a worker’s eligibility.

In addition, the Social Security Administration and the Homeland Security Department have been charged with finding a way to prevent undocumented workers from earning credit in the Social Security system for work they’ve done while in the United States illegally.

Chertoff also said his department intends to add thousands of agents along the country’s border with Mexico.

The Bush administration’s new enforcement measures follow its failed push in June to enact comprehensive reform at the federal level.

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