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by J.D. RiviereThu Jul 26, 3:58 AM ET
US businesses are bracing for a possible major crackdown on illegal foreign workers, as the government seeks to give immigration authorities more power to punish companies hiring undocumented workers.
President George W. Bush's administration has proposed a federal regulation that unions warn could lead to mass firings nationwide by companies seeking to avoid prosecution and fines.
"It's going to put businesses all over the nation in a bind," said Tamar Jacoby, an immigration expert at the conservative Manhattan Institute.
"If the feds (federal authorities) really follow through with this, and I think they're going to, you're going to see lots of industries ... leave the US," Jacoby said.
The rule under consideration in Washington relates directly to the potentially fraudulent use of Social Security numbers, which employees provide at the time of hiring.
Fake Social Security cards are widely available on the black market, allowing many immigrants to work at major US corporations.
Jacoby said the proposed regulation, left pending since June 2006, was boxed up while Congress debated a sweeping immigration reform plan that recently collapsed.
Since the legislation was buried, businesses have braced for the worksite enforcement regulation to be adopted by the Department of Homeland Security, she said.
The largest chicken processor in the United States, Pilgrim's Pride, has fired more than 100 employees who cannot produce valid Social Security numbers, according to news reports and advocates for the workers in rural east Texas.
Experts describe the firings as a pre-emptive move ahead of beefed-up enforcement.
The company has acknowledged firing workers although it would not say what motivated the layoffs or how many were let go. It has hired replacement workers.
"There undoubtedly will be additional terminations," said Gary Rhodes, a spokesman for Pilgrim's, which has 55,000 employees in the United States and Mexico.
The government routinely alerts companies when suspicious numbers are entered into the Social Security Administration's (SSA) electronic database, but experts say current law essentially allows employers to ignore the warning letters.
In a 2006 fact sheet, the White House said the proposed regulation would make it "clear that employers who ignore the discrepancies between SSA databases and the information provided by their employees may be viewed under the law as knowing that the employees are illegal workers, making it easier ... to prosecute violators."
Companies that knowingly hire illegal workers can face criminal prosecution and be hit with fines of up to 10,000 dollars per worker for repeat violations.
According to US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the proposed rule remains pending. But business leaders believe authorities may announce its final adoption before the summer is out.
ICE spokeswoman Pat Reilly could not give a timetable for when it might be adopted, but she said it was a "well intentioned regulation and one hopes that it will get full consideration."
Bill Hammond, head of the Texas Association of Business and part of a national business alliance that pushed for immigration reform in Washington, said the migrant job losses at Pilgrim's could be the tip of the iceberg.
There are an estimated 12 million illegal immigrants in the United States, with as many as a 10th of them in Texas.
"There are a lot of employees in Texas ... who are undocumented workers," Hammond said. "A lot of them could be out of the workforce over the next six to 12 months."
Immigrant advocacy groups, labor unions and a coalition of national business groups have criticized the proposal.
The AFL-CIO, an umbrella group representing 53 unions and nearly nine million workers, warned the government last year that the proposed rule would "trigger mass firings across the nation" and lead to discrimination against legal workers.
"It's going to put employers in a position pretty quickly of, I think, having to terminate workers," said John Gay, vice-president for government relations at the National Restaurant Association. "We are concerned about it."