By  on August 13, 2007

WASHINGTON — The Bush administration is taking matters into its own hands to curb illegal immigration without help from Congress.

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez said Friday they are raising civil fines against employers who hire undocumented workers, forcing employers to resolve identification discrepancies and overhauling temporary worker programs.

The administration's move on the immigration front comes in the wake of the Senate's failure in June to pass a sweeping bill to overhaul the immigration system. The Senate bill would have given citizenship to most of the estimated 12 million immigrants who are in the U.S. illegally, cracked down on employers who hire them, established a guest worker program and provided billions of dollars in funding for border security.

But Democratic leaders failed to get enough support from Republicans, many of whom claimed the legislation provided "amnesty" for illegal immigrants, to advance the bill for final passage.

On Friday, Chertoff and Gutierrez said they will use and expand tools within their own regulatory authority to crack down on illegal immigration. Chertoff's agency took the lead Friday by issuing a final "no-match" regulation, in which the Social Security Administration will send an employer a letter in cases where the business has a significant number of employees with inaccurate Social Security numbers.

The "no-match" letter will warn employers they may be held liable if they ignore problems by failing to take specified steps within 90 days of receiving the letter. The agency said Friday that the regulation takes effect in 30 days.

"I think [the Department of Homeland Security] held off a long time on issuing this rule because everyone assumed there would be comprehensive reform going through Congress," said Elizabeth Oesterle, vice president and government relations counsel at the National Retail Federation. "Now that it hasn't happened, they went ahead and did this."

Oesterle said the new rule will increase the pressure on retailers and other companies to determine why an employee's Social Security number does not match up with the government's database. She also said the rule clarifies what "knowing" means in the agency's standards relating to "knowingly" hiring illegal immigrants.

"This is a definitive rule and if the issue cannot be resolved within 90 days, the only way employers can protect themselves from being fined or worse by the DHS is to let the person go," said Oesterle.The big rub for businesses is that government databases are not foolproof and employers might be forced to let legitimate employees go due to inaccuracies. As part of the broader plan unveiled by the two cabinet secretaries, civil fines on employers who "knowingly" hire illegal immigrants will increase by as much as 25 percent.

"Efforts to secure the border will fail unless the 'magnet' that attracts illegals is turned off," DHS said in a summary released Friday. "Unfortunately, the fines for relying on illegal workers are so modest that some companies treat them as little more than a cost of doing business."

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