updated 10/11/2007 1:18:34 AM ET 2007-10-11T05:18:34

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 program 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 their 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 rule would likely impose hardships on businesses and their workers. Employers would incur new costs to comply with the regulation that the government hasn’t evaluated, and innocent workers unable to correct mistakes in their records in the given time would lose their jobs, the judge wrote.

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

The injunction blocks the implementation of the government’s plan until the lawsuit is resolved or an appeals court overturns this judge’s decision.

The so-called “no match” letters, including a Department of Homeland Security warning, were supposed to start going out in September but were held after labor groups and immigrant activists filed a federal lawsuit.

8 million may be affected
The government had about 140,000 letters ready to go, each containing the names of 10 or more employees with mismatches in their records. About 8 million employees would be affected, according to court documents.

The decision Wednesday was disappointing, said Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, but wasn’t more than a “bump in the road” in the agency’s drive to vigorously enforce laws aimed at keeping illegal immigrants out of the work force.

The government will evaluate the “modest legal obstacles” presented by the judge, addressing them in litigation or outside court as it examines its options and determines whether to appeal the decision, Chertoff said.

“I don’t think there’s anything in the judge’s ruling that is insurmountable,” Chertoff told The Associated Press in a phone interview. “The key is to move forward. We’re committed to using every tool available to enforce our immigration laws.”

But plaintiffs, which include the AFL-CIO, the American Civil Liberties Union and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, saw the decision as a significant victory against a program they believe would foster discrimination in the workplace, lead to job losses by lawful employees and expose businesses to additional expenses and the fear of prosecution.

“Judge Breyer’s decision today reassures authorized workers and U.S. citizens that their rights will be protected,” said Marielena Hincapie, with the National Immigration Law Center, an attorney on the case. “We’re very pleased to find the court held there is a serious question whether the Department of Homeland Security has exceeded its authority.”

Firms fear legal action
Businesses had argued in federal court that enforcing the rule would expose them to legal action, either from the government if they don’t comply, or from any employees they might have fired unfairly because of a mistake not corrected in time.

“This would cost a lot of money for employers to comply with,” said Angelo Amador, director of immigration policy for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. “This was drafted and published in haste, and now the administration is paying for it.”

The government had argued that the rule doesn’t impose an additional expense but simply provides guidelines to businesses that want to avoid liability for hiring undocumented workers.

“If an employer gets an indication of problems with an employee’s Social Security number or their name, they’ve got to ask about it,” Chertoff said. “That seems commonsense to me.”

For years, the Social Security Administration has let businesses and employees know when there were inconsistencies with their records, mainly so the workers wouldn’t lose access to the funds they were contributing to Social Security.

Often, the mismatches stem from undocumented immigrants who make up Social Security numbers to get a job. But because the discrepancies can result from a number of innocent mistakes — misspellings of a name or typos — the agency’s letters always clarified that the mailings did not “make any statement about an employee’s immigration status.”

Other illegal immigration suit
The ruling Wednesday came as Latinos in northern Virginia filed a lawsuit against Prince William County in an attempt to halt the implementation of a resolution that aims to deny a wide range of public services to illegal immigrants.

The resolution passed in July allows local police to check the residency status of individuals they encounter, authorizes county employees to collect immigration data on people who seek public benefits and seeks to deny public services — including housing assistance, drug rehab for jail inmates and senior programs — to illegal immigrants.

The lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Alexandria, Va., argues that enforcement of the measure will subject immigrants who are in the United States legally to unnecessary government intrusion and will violate their right to equal protection under the law.

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