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Originally published August 11, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified August 11, 2007 at 2:07 AM

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Employers fear crackdown on illegal workers

Farmers and other employers who rely heavily on immigrant labor said Friday that they could be driven out of business by the Bush administration's...

The Associated Press

SAN FRANCISCO — Farmers and other employers who rely heavily on immigrant labor said Friday that they could be driven out of business by the Bush administration's plans to crack down on workers whose Social Security numbers do not match their names and the businesses that hire them.

Administration officials said the stepped-up enforcement would begin in 30 days.

"Everyone's very anxious," said Paul Schlegel, director of public policy for the American Farm Bureau Federation. "We're heading into the busiest time of the year for agriculture, so you're going to see a lot of worry from farmers and employers about how you deal with this."

The industry group, which represents 75 percent of U.S. farmers, estimates at least half the nation's 1 million farmworkers do not have valid Social Security numbers. Losing them would devastate the industry, particularly fruit and vegetable growers, which rely heavily on manual labor, farmers said.

Other businesses that count on large numbers of illegal workers include construction, janitorial and landscaping companies, and hotels and restaurants.

"We are concerned that the new regulations will result in employers in numerous industries having to let workers go as the economy is facing an increasingly tight labor market," said John Gay, of the National Restaurant Association.

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez said they were forced to beef up enforcement of existing laws after Congress failed to pass a comprehensive immigration-overhaul bill.

Among other things, employers will now be required to fire employees who are unable to clear up problems with their Social Security numbers within 90 days after being notified. Employers who fail to comply could face criminal penalties.

Recognizing the crackdown could hurt some industries, particularly agriculture, Gutierrez said the Labor Department will try to make existing temporary-worker programs easier to use and more efficient.

Chertoff also said he will try to use the department's regulatory authority to raise fines on employers by about 25 percent, to a maximum $12,500 for repeat offenders.

"It'll just shut us down," said Manuel Cunha, a citrus grower who heads the Nisei Farmers League, a farming group in California's Central San Joaquin Valley, the nation's most productive region for fruits and vegetables. "It'll just be over if they start coming in here and busting employers. The food chain would fall apart."

About 12 million illegal immigrants live in the United States, and about 7 million of them work, according to the Pew Hispanic Center's estimates.

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The Social Security Administration estimated last year that about 1 in every 20 workers — up to 7.3 million workers out of about 146 million — used Social Security numbers that didn't belong to them.

The overall effectiveness of the new rules depends on whether the government can muster enough law-enforcement resources to go after companies that persist in breaking the law.

Conservative groups lauded the move, saying it would be welcomed by a population tired of watching illegal immigrants and their employers go unchallenged.

"We wish they had done this earlier, but even at this late stage they have an opportunity to regain the confidence and support of the American public," said Dan Stein, president of Federation for American Immigration Reform.

Material from Gannett News Services is included in this report.

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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