Politics & Policy

Immigration Match-Up

The Bush administration has taken a welcome step toward enforcing immigration law. Last week, the Department of Homeland Security announced that it will issue new regulations aimed at employers who receive “no match” letters from the Social Security Administration.

“No match” letters are sent to businesses that file W-2 forms on which the name and Social Security number of an employee do not match. This can be the result of a clerical error, but in most cases it means that the employee in question is an illegal alien. The new regulations will require that employers who receive “no match” letters contact the SSA and verify the status of their workers. Only by doing so will they be able to protect themselves from prosecution.

In a second encouraging development, the administration announced that it will require federal contractors to use an electronic-verification system to make sure their workers are legal. This may not greatly reduce the number of illegal hires, but it will send an important signal: If any employer should have to make sure its labor practices are in compliance with immigration law, it is the federal government.

All this is a great improvement over the White House’s push for amnesty earlier this year. President Bush deserves credit for showing the first serious commitment to border security of his presidency.

Recent comments from Homeland Security secretary Michael Chertoff cast a few doubts on that commitment, however. At a press conference announcing the new regulations, he said, “There will be some unhappy consequences for the economy out of doing this. . . . We don’t get a vote in Congress. We can’t make Congress pass it. But we can be very sure that we let Congress understand the consequences of the choices that Congress makes.” Chertoff didn’t say what the “it” is that he can’t make Congress pass, but clearly he was referring to “comprehensive” immigration reform.

Of course, labor markets are perfectly capable of matching supply and demand. But Chertoff’s words — in effect, “You wanted it, and now you’re going to get it good and hard” — invite us to ask whether the administration is truly committed to enforcing immigration law, or is simply hoping that a backlash against enforcement will create an opening for “comprehensive” reform.

Even if this isn’t what Chertoff meant, his department faces a bureaucratic hurdle to enforcing the new regulations. That is because the SSA refuses the give the Department of Homeland Security or any other law-enforcement agency its list of employers who receive “no match” letters, claiming that the tax code forbids it to do so.

Without access to that list, the DHS will be forced to use its limited manpower to start from scratch. Such an arrangement, apart from its tremendous inefficiency, makes any choice about where to begin look arbitrary. There is a risk that the DHS will end up avoiding these problems by “forgetting” about the new regulations altogether.

At his press conference, Chertoff chided Congress for not enacting legislation (buried in the now-defunct amnesty bill) “to give us clear authority to have information sharing with the Social Security Administration.” He then changed tack and suggested that the administration could authorize DHS to access this information without new legislation: “I don’t necessarily agree that by law Social Security can’t give us some information about where to target based on the number of no-match letters. That’s a legal issue we are currently addressing.” If the administration concludes that SSA is correct, it should send legislation to Congress that would fix this problem — and should keep that legislation separate from amnesty and guest-worker programs.

According to the SSA’s inspector general, there were 65 employers in the 2002 tax year who filed between 5,001 and 15,000 “no match” W-2s, and another six employers who filed between 15,001 and 36,000. Numbers this large represent a knowing abuse of the system. We’re glad the Bush administration has apparently found the will to do something about that — and we’ll be watching, along with the majority of voters who favor border enforcement, to see what actions follow.

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