updated 9/1/2007 12:33:08 AM ET 2007-09-01T04:33:08

The Social Security Administration cannot start sending out letters to employers next week containing notification of more serious penalties for knowingly hiring illegal immigrants, a federal judge ruled Friday.

Ruling on a lawsuit by the nation’s largest federation of labor unions against the U.S. government, U.S. District Judge Maxine Chesney granted a temporary restraining order prohibiting the so-called “no-match” letters from going out as planned starting Tuesday.

The AFL-CIO lawsuit, filed this week, claims that new Department of Homeland Security rules outlined in accompanying letters threaten to violate workers’ rights and unfairly burden employers. Chesney said the court needs “breathing room” before making any decision on the legality of new penalties aimed at cracking down on the hiring of illegal immigrants.

She set the next hearing on the matter for Oct. 1.

The Social Security Administration has sent out “no-match” letters for more than two decades warning employers of discrepancies in the information the government has on their workers. Employers often brushed aside the letters, and the small fines that sometimes were incurred, as a cost of doing business.

New penalties
But this year, those letters will be accompanied by notices from the Department of Homeland Security outlining strict new requirements for employers to resolve those discrepancies within 90 days or face fines or criminal prosecution, if they’re deemed to have knowingly hired illegal immigrants.

The judge’s ruling Friday temporarily prohibits the government from enforcing the new rules, which were scheduled to take effect Sept. 14.

Laura Keehner, a Department of Homeland Security spokeswoman, said the agency was disappointed but expects to prevail once the court hears its full arguments.

“We’ll continue to uphold the law,” Keehner said late Friday. “We’ll continue our enforcement efforts, and we’ll continue to discourage employers who flagrantly disregard immigration laws. There are consequences for those actions.”

U.S. government lawyers argued that the Social Security Administration needed to start sending the letters next week because postponing the staggered mailings would overwhelm staffers with a flood of responses if they finally do go out all at once.

Chesney did note rule on the merits of the case Friday but said the plaintiffs raised “serious questions” that need to be further examined by the court about whether the new rules run afoul of the law.

“It’s a critical and very significant first step in the first legal challenge of this rule,” said Lucas Guttentag, national director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Immigrants’ Rights Project and one of the plaintiffs’ lawyers.

Harming the innocent?
In its lawsuit, the plaintiffs argue that the Bush administration could inadvertently harm legal U.S. workers and law-abiding businesses in its quest to punish employers who are knowingly breaking the law.

The suit says the new rules could lead to the unfair firing of legal workers. The vast majority of the discrepancies in the Social Security Administration’s database — more than 70 percent of the 17.8 million discrepancies, according to a 2006 report by the SSA’s Office of the Inspector General — involve native-born U.S. citizens, the lawsuit notes.

The plaintiffs also argue that many of the discrepancies are caused by clerical errors, or stem from name changes or different naming conventions — such as the use of multiple surnames — that are popular particularly among Asians and Latin Americans.

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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