| Data on illegal immigrants kept secret
2 agencies cite privacy in denying info to prosecutors
Knight Ridder | April 26, 2006
Two federal agencies are refusing to turn over a mountain of evidence that investigators could use to indict the nation's burgeoning work force of illegal immigrants and the firms that employ them.
The Internal Revenue Service and the Social Security Administration routinely collect strong evidence of potential workplace crimes, including names and addresses of millions of people who are using bogus Social Security numbers, their wage records, and the identities of the bosses who knowingly hire them.
But they keep those facts secret.
The two agencies don't analyze their data to root out likely immigration fraud, and they won't share their millions of records so that law enforcement agencies can do that, either.
Privacy laws, they say, prohibit them from sharing their files with anyone, except in rare criminal investigations.
But the agencies don't even use the power they have.
The IRS doesn't fine even the most egregious employers who repeatedly submit inaccurate data about their workers. Social Security does virtually nothing to alert citizens whose Social Security numbers are being used by others.
Evidence abounds within their files, according to an analysis by Knight Ridder Newspapers and the Charlotte (N.C.) Observer.
One internal study found that a restaurant company had submitted 4,100 duplicate Social Security numbers for workers. Other firms submit inaccurate names or numbers reports for nearly all of their employees. One child's Social Security number was used 742 times by workers in 42 states.
"That's the kind of evidence we want," said Paul Charlton, the U.S. attorney in Arizona. He regularly prosecutes unauthorized workers, but says it's hard to prove employers are involved in the crime.
"Anything that suggests they had knowledge . . . is a good starting point. If you see the same Social Security number a thousand times, it's kind of hard for them to argue they didn't know."
On Thursday, immigration officials announced a new push toward busting bosses who hire unauthorized workers.
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff has asked Congress for access to the secret earnings files, a tool he says would help "get control of this illegal workforce."
The records at issue are the earnings reports, sent by employers along with money withheld for taxes and Social Security.
They contain workers' names and Social Security numbers, and when they don't match Social Security records, the information is set aside in what's called the Earnings Suspense File.
Typos and name changes can cause wage reports not to match Social Security records. But increasingly, officials cite unauthorized workers using bogus Social Security numbers as a driving force behind the mismatched files.
The incorrect worker files mushroomed during the 1990s, as migrants poured into the United States. Almost half of the inaccurate reports come from such industries as agriculture, construction and restaurants, which rely on unauthorized labor.
The IRS also receives the mismatch information. It tries to match workers involved to its records, then probes to see whether the workers are paying taxes.
To work lawfully in the United States, individuals must have valid Social Security numbers or authorization from the Department of Homeland Security.
But the law doesn't require companies to verify that workers give them names and numbers that match Social Security records.
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