Judge blocks illegal immigrant crackdown

Scott Kronland, left, a lawyer with the AFL-CIO, Lucas Guttentag, center, a lawyer with the ACLU, and Marielna Hincapie, with the National Immigration Law Center, talk with reporters.
Scott Kronland, left, a lawyer with the AFL-CIO, Lucas Guttentag, center, a lawyer with the ACLU, and Marielna Hincapie, with the National Immigration Law Center, talk with reporters.

SAN FRANCISCO (CBS/AP) -- A federal judge on Wednesday granted a request by labor and civil liberties organizations to temporarily block the U.S. government from proceeding with a plan to crack down on businesses that may be employing illegal immigrants.

U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer said the Social Security Administration and the Department of Homeland Security could not go ahead with a plan to send joint letters warning businesses they'll face penalties if they keep workers whose Social Security numbers don't match their names.

Breyer said the new work-site rule would likely impose hardships on businesses and their workers.

"The plaintiffs have demonstrated they will be irreparably harmed if DHS is permitted to enforce the new rule," Breyer wrote.

"On the other side of the scale," he added, "the government would suffer significantly less harm as a result of a delay in the rule's implementation."

The ruling goes to the heart of the Bush Administration's crackdown on illegal immigration that has resulted in a record number of undocumented workers being rounded up in raids across America, reports CBS News correspondent Bob Orr.

More than 50 suspect workers were recently arrested at 11 McDonald's restaurants Reno, Nevada. Another 160 were grabbed at a DelMonte packing plant in Oregon.

In all, more than 4,000 undocumented workers have been arrested this year, about 10 percent more than a year ago, adds Orr.

The so-called "No Match" letters were supposed to start going out in September, but labor groups and immigrant activists filed a lawsuit claiming the plan would put a heavy burden on employers, and could cause many authorized immigrants and U.S. citizens to lose their jobs over innocent paperwork snafus.

The government, however, argued that the rule doesn't impose an expense, and some businesses want to avoid liability for hiring undocumented workers.

The Department of Justice's Civil Division spokesman Charles Miller said in a statement today, "We strongly disagree with the court's decision. We are currently reviewing Judge Breyer's opinion and will consider our options, including an appeal."

On Oct. 1, Breyer requested time to consider the legal arguments presented by government attorneys and plaintiffs, which include the AFL-CIO, the American Civil Liberties Union, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and a number of other business and labor groups.

A large portion of the mismatches in the Social Security Administration's records are believed to stem from illegal immigrants who make up fake Social Security numbers to get a job, though there are also instances of name changes and typographical errors involving U.S. citizens.

In August, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff announced the agency would start notifying businesses that if workers were unable to clear up problems with their Social Security numbers within 90 days, they would have to be terminated. If not, their employer could face criminal fines and other sanctions.

According to government attorneys, the rule simply clarifies employers' obligations under immigration law and gives them clear guidelines on how to handle mismatched records. Until now, the Social Security Administration regularly notified employers of discrepancies, but employers were not required to act.

The measure was scheduled to take effect in September, with the mailing of about 140,000 letters, each containing the names of 10 or more employees with mismatches in their records. Approximately 8 million workers would be identified as having discrepancies.

The San Francisco federal court blocked its implementation after the suit was filed, issuing temporary restraints until the judge could determine whether the plaintiffs would suffer damage if the government were allowed to go forward with its plan.

Attorneys representing businesses associations argued the Department of Homeland Security's plan would place a costly burden on them that could lead to the needless firing of employees. That, in turn, would open them up to lawsuits, and charges of discrimination.

Civil liberties organizations joining the suit pointed out the rule would likely lead to the violation of the rights of many legal workers who might have made a mistake they couldn't correct before deadline.

Posted by KO

The Associated Press and CBS News contributed to this report.