Letters as leverage

Bay Area activists are leading the fight against a new Bush administration crackdown on undocumented workers
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It's a thin, seemingly innocuous letter. The Social Security Administration mails it when names and Social Security numbers don't match on an employee's I-9 form. The intent is to make sure workers receive their benefits.

But unions and immigrants have long charged that unscrupulous employers use SSA "no match" letters to harass undocumented workers and squelch union organizing efforts. Now, after a failed immigration debate in Congress, the George W. Bush administration wants to pass a regulation that would explicitly turn the letter into an immigration enforcement tool.

Activists fear this could result in massive firings and retaliation against workers organizing with unions. Employers complain it could lead to an economic slump in industries dependent on undocumented labor. A temporary injunction granted by a San Francisco judge is the only thing holding back letters across the country; it ends Oct. 1.

Bay Area activists have been national leaders at the intersection of immigrant rights and labor movements. They are now shaping national policy on this new regulation in the courts and promise wide-scale street action and workplace walkouts if it goes into effect.

A look at past and present related Bay Area organizing may shed light on the future of the national issue.

BAY AREA ORGANIZING

US companies file hundreds of millions of W-2 forms with the SSA every year. The SSA uses them to calculate how much it owes workers at retirement. When the name and the Social Security number do not match, the SSA sends a "no match" letter to the employee to clear up the discrepancy. The letters are also sent to employers who have more than 10 employees with no match. These letters have nothing to do with immigration law, and employers are not required to take any adverse action against these employees.

But under the new Department of Homeland Security regulation, no-match letters may be seen as evidence that an employer knowingly employed an undocumented worker. The letters would include a leaflet from US Immigration and Customs Enforcement informing employers that they must fire workers who cannot resolve no matches with the SSA or reverify their work authorization within 93 days. If the companies do not, they may be subject to fines or criminal charges.

The rule was drafted more than a year ago but was not announced by Homeland Security secretary Michael Chertoff until Aug 10. "The magnet that brings most economic migrants into this country is work," he explained. "And if we have worksite enforcement directed at illegal employment, we strike at that magnet."

Brooke Anderson, an organizer with the East Bay Alliance for a Sustainable Economy, told the Guardian that this is an unlikely scenario. Workers will not leave the country; they will simply be forced into underground economies, rotate through different jobs, and become even more vulnerable.

Anderson was among a delegation of more than 30 labor, faith, and community leaders that presented a letter Aug. 30 at the regional SSA office in Richmond. The letter outlined their concerns and asked that the SSA send out no-match letters only to employees, not employers.

"DHS is using an incomplete, hodgepodge system intended to ensure our economic security to implement a regressive immigration policy that Bush failed to pass in Congress," Anderson told us. "The SSA as an agency should have a spine and say no to DHS and no to the Bush administration."

If the ICE inserts do go out with no-match letters, she predicts walkouts and massive street actions.

The regulation is also being challenged in a lawsuit filed by the Central Labor Council of Alameda County. The AFL-CIO, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the San Francisco Central Labor Council have joined it.

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