SAN FRANCISCO A U.S. federal court judge on Wednesday blocked a key part of the Bush administration's stepped-up efforts to crack down on illegal immigrant workers and those who employ them.
Judge Charles Breyer of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California granted a preliminary injunction against a program that would force employers to verify Social Security numbers and fire workers whose numbers did not match official records.
The federal program developed by the Department of Homeland Security is at the heart of a new crackdown on the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants in the country, after Congress failed to pass comprehensive immigration reform.
But the "no-match letter" program was challenged in a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union, the AFL-CIO and other labor groups claiming it was unlawful and hurt all workers, including legal ones affected by errors in the data base.
"The balance of hardships tips sharply in plaintiffs' favor and plaintiffs have raised serious questions," Breyer said in his ruling.
Breyer still has to rule on a permanent injunction, but workers' rights groups celebrated Wednesday's decision.
"This was really about targeting workers rights generally," said Ana Avendano, director of immigrant programs at the AFL-CIO. "The win is about preventing the Bush administration from causing further harm to workers in this country."
White House spokesman Scott Stanzel said the administration was disappointed with the ruling and added:
"Coupled with the near daily stories about local communities taking immigration matters into their own hands, this ruling serves as another reminder that Congress needs to enact comprehensive immigration reform to establish a system that is secure, productive, orderly and fair."
Breyer had already blocked the Social Security Administration from sending out 140,000 letters to employers with 8 million employees whose names did not match their nine-digit identification numbers.
Under the proposed program, employers notified of a "no-match" would have 90 days to confirm that an employee was in the country legally or fire him if not.
Employers also could face fines as well as criminal charges if they did not comply with the program.
The judge also said the threat of a criminal prosecution against an employer "reflects a major change in Department of Homeland Security policy."
Mailing out new no-match letters to employers "would result in irreparable harm to innocent workers and employers," Breyer wrote.
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, in a statement, defended the program as giving employers "clear guidance" if they receive a no-match letter for an employee. He said the department was reviewing Breyer's decision with the Justice Department to "examine all of our options, including appeal."
The judge told the parties in the case to prepare and submit proposals by October 12 for a hearing to reach a final decision.
President George W. Bush earlier this year pushed a comprehensive immigration package that included a guest worker program and procedures for many illegal immigrants to move toward citizenship.
But many in Congress, including Bush's fellow Republicans, balked at the worker and citizen provisions so the administration concentrated on protecting the borders and cracking down on illegal workers.
(Additional reporting by Dana Ford in Los Angeles)