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Judge blocks plan to crack down on illegal workers

SAN FRANCISCO A federal judge has blocked the Bush administration from enacting its controversial plan to weed illegal immigrants from the workforce by forcing restaurants and other businesses to fire employees who are believed to be using bogus Social Security numbers. But the injunction issued here Wednesday is only preliminary, with more deliberation expected from a U.S. District Court before a final decision is issued on a legal challenge of the Department of Homeland Security initiative.

Under the program set forth by Homeland Security, employers would be notified, as they have been in the past, if the Social Security information provided by an employee does not match what’s in the federal government’s database. The notices, commonly known as “no-match letters,” would alert the business that the employee in question had 90 days to clear up the discrepancy. If the mismatch was not corrected, the employer would have to fire that staffer or face fines ranging from a few hundred dollars to $10,000.

In granting a preliminary injunction on Wednesday, Judge Charles Breyer said the program could have resulted in legally employed workers being fired because of numerous errors in the Social Security Administration’s records. He presides over the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California.

The Bush administration’s plan has been opposed by the restaurant industry, which is believed to employ about 1.4 million illegal immigrants. Authorities estimate the total number of illegal immigrants working in the United States at 7 million, with another 5 million living in the country but not holding jobs.

"We are pleased that Judge Breyer acted today to protect small businesses across the country by preventing the administration from moving forward with plans to enforce new no-match regulations," said John Gay, senior vice president for government affairs and public policy for the National Restaurant Association in Washington, D.C. "We share the judge's concern about the government's proposal potentially costing lawfully employed workers their jobs, and we believe the ruling sends a strong message that the government must carefully consider the cost and implementation of new regulations before making demands of the nation's small business community."

The program, originally set to start Sept. 14, was challenged in a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union, the AFL-CIO, San Francisco-area labor groups and other parties. The defendants include the Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Social Security Administration.

On Aug. 31, U.S. District Judge Maxine M. Chesney suspended enactment of the Homeland Security initiative, along with the mailing of 140,000 no-match letters, until the beginning of October. On Oct. 1, Judge Breyer extended the restraining order for 10 days, or until Thursday.

In issuing the preliminary injunction on Wednesday, Breyer said, "The balance of hardships tips sharply in plaintiffs' favor and plaintiffs have raised serious questions."

Plaintiffs' co-counsel Omar C. Jadwat of the ACLU's Immigrants' Rights Project said: "The ball is in the governmentÕs court at this point... The preliminary injunction will last as long as the litigation lasts."

He said he expects the defendants to seek an appeal of the temporary injunction.

At last week's Multi-Unit Foodservice Operators Conference, attendees were asked twice to raise their hands if they had received no-match letters. In one session, more than half indicated that they had. In another, a speaker estimated the yea responses at about 25 percent of the audience.

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