September 12, 2006
San Francisco—San Francisco took a stand on Tuesday against a proposed federal rule that city officials believe will saddle employers with the responsibility of enforcing federal immigration laws.
The Board of Supervisors unanimously agreed to ignore the rule now being considered by the Department of Homeland Security. The rule would require employers to get to the bottom of “no-match” letters sent by the federal government when a worker’s name and social security number don’t match federal records.
The discrepancy may result from a false or purchased Social Security number used by an undocumented worker, according to the text of the proposed rule.
About 10.5 million unauthorized immigrants live in the United States, according to a 2005 Department of Homeland Security estimate. An estimated 2.8 million live in California.
An employer who receives a no-match letter would have 60 days to resolve the discrepancy under the proposed rule. If it is not resolved, the employer must either fire the worker or face fines and criminal penalties.
City officials said they thought the rule put too much of a burden on businesses.
“The federal government doesn’t want to enforce immigration law, but they’re going to find a cheap way to get employers to do their dirty work,” said Supervisor Gerardo Sandoval, who sponsored the resolution.
The resolution states that the City and County of San Francisco will take “no adverse action” against any city employee named in a no-match letter, although it will still comply with all legal regulations. The resolution applies only to city employees, not to employees of businesses or other organizations in San Francisco.
Mayor Gavin Newsom wrote the resolution at the urging of the San Francisco Labor Council. Newsom spokesman Joe Arellano echoed Sandoval’s sentiments: “The mayor feels strongly that this would put businesses in charge of enforcing immigration law.”
The mayor also believes that instituting a rule change, rather than proposing legislation, is “very problematic,” said Arellano. “If they’re going to do something like this, they should proceed through the proper channels, instead of sneaking this through in an election year.”
No-match letters are sent for a number of reasons, not only because of the suspected illegal use of Social Security numbers. Often, clerical errors trigger a letter, as well as name changes due to marriage.
Some may result from cultural misunderstandings, such as the use of both maternal and paternal surnames by Latinos, or switching the day and month when writing a birthday, said Pilar Schiavo, political director of the San Francisco Labor Council. The Social Security system is “notorious for having wrong information,” she said.
“When you base immigration law on faulty information, that’s a problem,” Schiavo added.
No-match letters have previously been used only to inform workers of inconsistencies in Social Security payments, not to enforce immigration law, Schiavo said.
“We have many unions that are majority immigrant workers. So this is going to profoundly affect our members and our unions and our members’ lives,” she said.
It is possible that the 100,000 union members represented by the labor council include undocumented workers, Schiavo acknowledged. “We’re not required to check immigrant status,” she said. “And we like it that way.”
The City and County of San Francisco already checks the Social Security numbers of its employees, so it is unlikely to receive no-match letters. Still, Sandoval regards the resolution as an important piece of legislation. “We establish trends and many best-practices,” he said, pointing out that the city government is one of the largest employers in San Francisco, with about 28,000 employees. “So I think it’s important that we lead by example.”
The resolution acts as a reminder to employers that they should investigate before taking action on a no-match letter, said Sandoval. He also suggested that the proposed rule is designed to harass undocumented workers.
“The fact is, the federal government speaks with a forked tongue because it can’t seem to decide whether it wants these folks or it doesn’t want these folks, but it seems okay to harass them,” he said.
It is possible that undocumented workers might be working for the city, Sandoval acknowledged. If this is discovered, the employees in question would be terminated, but would not be reported to immigration authorities because San Francisco is a “sanctuary city,” he said. San Francisco city employees have been barred from assisting in the enforcement of immigration laws or asking about immigration status beyond what is required by law since passage of a 1989 ordinance.
But that sanctuary status may endanger San Francisco’s federal homeland security funding. An amendment added to the 2007 Department of Homeland Security appropriations bill by Rep. Steve King (R-IA) would deny funds to sanctuary cities.
The proposed no-match rule, “combined with (the Department of Homeland Security’s) efforts to deny us homeland security funds based on our sanctuary city status is just another example of them playing election-year politics with an issue like homeland security that is non-partisan,” said Arellano.
[Back-posted on December 12, 2006.]