washington -- The Bush administration took the gloves off Monday in its fight over immigration enforcement, suing the state of Illinois for banning use of a federal system that checks whether workers are in the United States legally.
The United States of America vs. the State of Illinois is the latest court battle the administration is waging with immigrant advocates and business groups over its crackdown on workers here illegally and the companies that hire them.
Brought by the Justice Department on behalf of the Department of Homeland Security, the civil suit is intended to preempt an Illinois state law that bars businesses from using the employee verification program until its databases are faster and more accurate. The suit is also intended to send a clear message to other states and cities about the way they handle immigration enforcement.
The Illinois law “is a direct assault on the federal law,” Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said Monday in an interview with the Los Angeles Times. “This is about as bold an anti-enforcement measure as I’ve ever seen.”
As Congress has struggled and failed to pass broad immigration reform, state and local governments have taken up the challenge, introducing record-breaking numbers of bills concerning immigration in the first half of 2007. Most have toughened their own enforcement laws; some have put in place protections for the immigrants in their communities or moved to make their lives easier.
Because immigration law falls exclusively under federal jurisdiction, many states have struggled with the issue. On Monday, Chertoff made it clear that his agency will not countenance interference from states, and he blamed interest groups for trying to impede his department with lawsuits.
He told a House committee this month that he would take action against any city that hampered his ability to enforce the law. On Monday, he said: “I’m living up to my promises.”
Advocates cited the Illinois lawsuit as yet another blow to immigrants -- along with an increase in work-site raids and high-profile deportations -- in the aftermath of the Senate’s failure to pass a comprehensive immigration law. They argued that the suit was meant to stifle states that take a more protective stance toward immigrants and that Homeland Security was applying its legal argument inconsistently.
But supporters of tighter controls said the suit was good news. “It’s an indication that the federal government is finally stepping up to the plate and accepting its responsibilities in the field of immigration,” said Mark Krikorian, director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington public policy center that favors restrictions on immigration.
Illinois officials defended the law, one of two related bills that passed with veto-proof majorities in both chambers. State lawmakers introduced the bill and Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich signed it into law Aug. 13 “to protect employees from unfair treatment under the federal government’s flawed program,” Abby Ottenhoff, a spokeswoman for the governor, said of the employee verification system.
Illinois has the fourth-largest illegal immigrant population in the nation; out of the state’s 12 million people, about 500,000 are thought to be in the country without papers. Blagojevich, the son of a Serbian immigrant who in speeches often draws on his father’s experiences, has a strong track record of supporting pro-immigrant initiatives.
The worker verification program -- once known as Basic Pilot and renamed E-Verify -- is a voluntary Internet-based system that allows employers to check workers’ eligibility through databases at Homeland Security and the Social Security Administration. If a discrepancy cannot be resolved within eight business days, an employer has to fire the employee or face possible Homeland Security sanctions.
As of Aug. 31, 22,205 businesses had agreed to participate in the program, 750 of them in Illinois. Homeland Security estimates that 800 employers are signing up each week and that 2.9 million firms have made inquiries about the program this fiscal year. But Social Security officials estimate that about 17.8 million, or 4.1%, of their records contain inaccuracies related to names, dates of birth and citizenship. Almost 13 million of those records belong to U.S. citizens.
The accuracy of those databases is at the center of another court fight over Homeland Security enforcement measures. A California court is expected to rule on Monday whether the department can go forward with an aggressive plan that would push employers to fire workers if discrepancies in their Social Security information cannot be resolved.
Advocates who helped write the Illinois law say the Social Security inaccuracies mean that many legal employees could be hurt by E-Verify, the use of which would have been mandatory nationwide under the failed Senate immigration bill.
The Illinois law, effective Jan. 1, prohibits employers from using the system until its databases can settle 99% of problematic records within three days. Current law requires E-Verify to respond to employers within 10 days. Chertoff, saying that inputting data and figuring out mistakes takes time, called the three-day standard “for all intents impossible to meet.”
Christopher Williams, a lawyer who helped draft the Illinois law, objected to Chertoff’s claim that the state was obstructing federal law.
“Nothing could be farther from the truth,” Williams said. He said that the law provided an exemption for businesses that were required to use E-Verify, including those that have been investigated for hiring illegal immigrants, and that the state Chamber of Commerce backed the legislation.
“The fundamental issue is are we going to require a flawed database as a means of enforcing immigration law,” Williams said.
Immigration lawyers questioned the department’s consistency, pointing out that Homeland Security was not taking action against Arizona, which in July adopted a law requiring all employers to use E-Verify or have their business licenses suspended or revoked.
“The question is: Is this going to be an equal opportunity litigation campaign, or are they only going to file against states that are trying to be more protective of their immigrant communities?” said Marshall Fitz of the American Immigration Lawyers Assn.
Chertoff said Homeland Security was not eyeing other suits at the moment but stressed his intent to end public cynicism about the administration’s commitment to enforcing immigration law.
“I’m determined to prove that cynicism is wrong and that there’s a new sheriff in town,” he said.
Likening the struggle to the toughest in his career as a prosecutor, Chertoff said he was working with the same persistence and aggressiveness he brought to targeting organized crime.
“I have a pretty determined mind about this stuff,” he said.