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US crackdown on hiring illegals irks business community

As the US steps up border security and work-site enforcement, businesses that rely heavily on illegal immigrants worry that they won't be able to keep their doors open.

Seven weeks after the collapse of comprehensive immigration reform in the Senate, the Bush administration is shifting to a plan the president once said could not work: stepped up enforcement of existing laws.

What concerns many of the nation's businesses and farms that use undocumented labor is that it might work all too well.

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"It's going to hurt my members and be terrible for the economy," says Craig Silvertooth, director of federal affairs for the National Roofing Contractors Association.

According to US data, about 30 percent of the roofing workforce is "improperly documented," he says. Even with wages at more than $21 per hour, the industry hasn't been able to recruit enough legal workers to meet the demand.

"If a contractor is in the middle of a major project and loses a third of his workforce, he won't be able to complete the job. You'll see businesses contracting and some doors shut," Mr. Silvertooth adds.

The 26-point crackdown, announced Friday, aims to cut the incentive for illegal immigration in the United States: jobs. "If we have work site enforcement directed at illegal employment, we strike at that magnet," said Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff.

The expected disruptions to interests ranging from restaurants, motels, landscaping, the garment industry, construction, and farms also steps up the pressure on Congress to pass comprehensive reform.

"Our hope is that the key elements of the Senate bill will see the light of day at some point. But until Congress chooses to act, we're going to be taking some energetic steps of our own," said Mr. Chertoff.

The administration's plan includes more resources on the border, enhanced enforcement within the US, and stepped up work site enforcement.

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Of greatest concern to the US business community is a "no-match" regulation that requires employers to take action if an employee's personal identity information does not match a number in the Social Security Administration database.

Under the terms of the Bush administration's crackdown, an employer receiving a "no-match" letter on an employee has 90 days to resolve the issue. This may require the worker sorting out discrepancies directly with the Social Security Administration.

As the nation's recent passport debacle showed, dealing with any US government bureaucracy can be a daunting task, critics say.

"A lot of burden will fall on the employee to fight the government bureaucracy to figure out what went wrong," says Jenna Hamilton, a spokeswoman for the National Association of Home Builders. "There's a lot of concern in the employer community that there may be legitimate reasons for a mismatch, but you may end up terminating people who are eligible to work because they have not been able to navigate the bureaucracy."

In the run-up to Senate votes on a comprehensive immigration reform, President Bush often said that enforcement alone would not solve the nation's border crisis.

Since January 2007, more than 1,400 immigration bills have been submitted by state lawmakers to deal with enforcement, and 170 have become law. But many of these laws face court challenges. The resulting confusion is also bad for business and communities, critics say.

"States and localities are moving because they view the federal government largely as incompetent when it comes to border security," says Bruce Josten, executive vice president for government affairs at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which lobbied for comprehensive immigration reform.

The new federal crackdown "will have teeth on any work site that they care to go," he adds. "We saw 20 to 30 percent of the nation's fruits and vegetables die on the vine last year, when the crackdown was only on the border. It's happening again this year. And now they're going to the farms."

Immigration activists and unions representing the service industry say the new enforcement moves will drive illegal workers deeper into the shadows. "We must ask why this president, who supports immigrants and workers when it's politically expedient, would consider using precious federal resources to tear up families, militarize work sites, and hurt local communities," says Eliseo Medina, executive vice president of the Service Employees International Union.

The no-match crackdown is aimed at people who are trying to do the right thing: paying taxes and Social Security, he adds. "I'm hoping Congress will step up to the plate and say this procedure is unworkable."

Some Republicans called the administration's immigration enforcement plan encouraging. "Americans want to know that the government is serious about enforcing our borders and reducing illegal immigration," said Sen. Jon Kyl (R) of Arizona, one of the sponsors of comprehensive immigration reform, in a statement.