The Social Security Administration is planning to pore through wage and tax statements and notify employers when employee names and Social Security numbers are not identified in their records in what appears to be the Trump administration’s latest push to target undocumented Americans in the workplace.
The SSA announced in a recent post on its website that, in the spring of 2019, it would begin to send Employer Correction Request Notices to employers of people whose names and Social Security numbers do not match those in its system.
“There are a number of reasons why reported names and SSNs may not agree with our records,” the announcement said. “We encourage employers and third party submitters to register for Business Services Online to ensure the accuracy of wage reporting.”
The SSA did not respond to questions from Pacific Standard regarding the purpose of the letters and whether the information yielded from responses would be shared with immigration authorities. In a singular indication of the notifications’ purpose, the SSA announcement says that the agency “is committed to maintaining the accuracy of earnings records used to determine benefit amounts to ensure customers get the benefits they have earned.”
Previous administrations have sent out such letters before, but were “temporarily halted during litigation and congressional inquiry because it was wrongfully used as a method of immigration enforcement that was found to hurt workers and employers alike, regardless of immigration status,” says Sasha Feldstein, policy analyst at the California Immigrant Policy Center.
“The resurgence of this policy after it was found to be wrongfully used and ineffective is just another example of the administration’s attempt to exploit workers.”
Other analysts say there is much room for error in the SSA’s records, and that notifications could have profound consequences for the employees the agency identifies.
“There are flaws in the SSA database that could lead to discrimination against workers as well as unfair terminations,” says Reshma Shamasunder, vice president of program strategy at Asian Americans Advancing Justice–Los Angeles. “If a worker is told his employer received a no-match letter for that particular worker, that person should contact an immigrant rights organization or an attorney.”
The CIPC’s Feldstein expressed similar concerns over the SSA plan’s potential for error to the detriment of American workers.
“We are concerned that these letters will be misused and abused,” she says. “There have been cases where employers have fired workers upon receiving a no-match letter and have even stolen workers’ wages by firing workers without paying them for hours owed. We must be vigilant against abuses and retaliation and any actions that further marginalize undocumented workers.”
Other immigrant rights advocates say the purpose of the SSA as an agency is to support the elderly and the disabled, not to weigh in on the Trump administration’s efforts to crack down on undocumented immigration.
“We need Social Security to support us in our retirement. Social Security Administration resources would be better spent on meeting the needs of a changing economy and aging population, rather than chasing down clerical errors,” says Alexandra Suh, director of Los Angeles community advocacy group the Koreatown Immigrant Workers Alliance.
The SSA’s plan would drive communities often exploited by their employers deeper into more dire straits, Suh says. “Immigrant workers in low-wage jobs experience high levels of wage theft and safety violations. Such notices induce a chilling effect, turning employers away from hiring immigrants in the first place, or firing immigrant workers who speak out about workplace abuses.”
The Trump administration has engaged in numerous attempts to dissuade employers from hiring undocumented immigrants, despite widely reported allegations that Trump family businesses have employed undocumented workers. For example, in January of 2018, Trump administration immigration enforcement launched a series of sweeps at 7-Elevens across the country that not only detained undocumented employees but also launched audits against employers. The tactic was seen as unusual—previous administrations had either gone after employers or employees but not both. The intent on the part of the administration, analysts said, was not only to make going to work unsafe for undocumented laborers but to also dissuade employers from hiring them in the first place.
The CIPC’s Feldstein says that, whatever the SSA’s intentions in reviving the no-match letters may be, the law protects employees from termination on the basis of their immigration status. “It is important to avoid panic,” she says. “Employers are expressly prohibited from taking any adverse or retaliatory action against an employee for receiving a no-match letter. Employers cannot fire a worker solely for a no-match letter, and must give workers opportunities to fix any errors.”
In Feldstein’s view, the federal government would be better advised to spend its time helping to preserve workers’ rights than devoting energy and taxpayer dollars to sleuthing the American workforce’s immigration status.
“Instead, we should be focused on enforcing workers’ rights so that everyone can live and work with dignity,” she says. “Community members must stand with workers, because ultimately unscrupulous policies like no-match letters affect all of us.”