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Legal scramble over 'no-match' letters

Sample Social Security card

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KAI RYSSDAL: You know all those forms you fill out when you start a new job? Most of them end up in a file drawer someplace. But at least one of them -- the W-2 -- finds its way to the Social Security Administration.

There, Social Security numbers are compared -- and if a new employee's number doesn't match what's on file, the SSA sends the company what's called a no-match letter. Thousands of them were due to be mailed out a couple of weeks ago as part of the Bush administration's crackdown on illegal immigrants.

Labor unions filed suit to stop them, and a federal judge will consider the case in a hearing next week. Ashley Milne-Tyte reports industries and livelihoods hang on the decision.


ASHLEY MILNE-TYTE: It's a busy weekday lunchtime in the cramped kitchen of Good Enough to Eat, a Manhattan restaurant specializing in home-baked goods and comfort food. Cooks and busboys jostle with each other, chopping lettuce and maneuvering to dump dishes in the sink.

All the guys in the kitchen are immigrants.

Owner Carrie Levin has received no-match letters from the government in the past. In response, she's fired workers who've used dodgy Social Security numbers. She's not looking forward to getting more letters, in case she discovers that some of her current employees' numbers are fake.

CARRIE LEVIN: Maybe we're going to get another five or six more people that their number doesn't coincide. They're going to have to go.

This summer, the Department of Homeland Security announced that when the next batch of letters goes out, business owners need to act fast. They'll have to resolve any discrepancies with a worker's social security number within 90 days, or get rid of the worker. Otherwise, they could face fines of up to $10,000.

Levin dreads the idea of letting anyone go -- she says most of her staff has been with her for years, and she says good employees are hard to find.

LEVIN: It took me eight months to find somebody to work with me in the kitchen. This is a problem. This is a really big problem.

Chuck Hunt is with the New York State Restaurant Association. He says Congress has failed in its job to sort out the immigration issue. And as a result, business owners are stuck with an unwelcome burden.

CHUCK HUNT: They're asking us to be border control officers right in our restaurants.

But some people say that's exactly what business owners should be. Steven Camarota is with Center for Immigration Studies. He says 50 to 60 percent of illegal immigrants give an employers some form of social security number. Most are made up, he says, or consist of a string of zeros. He says the whole system needs an injection of integrity, and employers have to help.

STEVEN CAMAROTA: These Social Security non-match letters are a good first step. They're one piece in a larger puzzle, but this is a common-sense thing that isn't particularly expensive to implement and over time could be very disruptive to the employment of illegals.

And, he says, gradually force them to go home. Something this undocumented restaurant worker says he's pondering.

GABRIEL: My name is Gabriel, and I work in a restaurant as a busboy.

Gabriel is 24. His mother brought him and his sister to the U.S. when he was 11. No one in the family is here legally -- he has a taxpayer ID, which he enters on employment forms. But he's always fudged the issue of a Social Security number. He's concerned about the looming clampdown, but he's not convinced it'll stop people like him from seeking jobs.

GABRIEL: These people are hard-working people who really care about their families. They want to have food for the table, they want to have a ceiling for the children. They will do anything to keep working.

Including, he says, continuing to get creative with the information on job applications. But these short-term fixes might not hold up under Homeland Security's new enforcement efforts. If they don't, Gabriel says he may have to start a new life in the small Mexican town he left as a kid.

In New York, I'm Ashley Milne-Tyte for Marketplace.

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