WASHINGTON—Congress is moving to knock down barriers that currently bar the IRS and Social Security Administration from sharing information that could help law enforcement identify illegal immigrants and the firms that employ them.
The two agencies routinely collect evidence of potential workplace crimes, including the 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.
The agencies don't analyze their data to sift out likely immigration fraud, and citing privacy rules, they won't share their records so that law enforcement agencies can do that, either.
In the immigration legislation now in the Senate, Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, has included a measure that allows the sharing of information with prosecutors on the most egregious examples of employers who send the two agencies inaccurate Social Security numbers for their workers.
Grassley described the protection of taxpayer information "a cornerstone of our voluntary tax system," but he said that the IRS could share selected information that wouldn't violate the privacy protections Americans expect.
On Wednesday, Rep. Sue Myrick, R-N.C., announced plans to introduce bills requiring Social Security to notify immigration officials—and any American citizens affected—whenever more than one person uses the same Social Security number.
"Millions of Americans had their (Social Security) cards used by illegal aliens," said Myrick. "But the bureaucrats at the Social Security Administration don't tell these Americans. Their ID gets stolen and they are left in the dark."
Federal officials say that as many as 9 million employment records contained bogus or duplicate Social Security numbers.
IRS officials worry that disclosing those records might cause companies and employees to stop reporting income and paying taxes—and go underground where exploitation is more certain.
But the Department of Homeland Security, which includes immigration enforcement, said that the tax information would make it easier to flag companies that report hiring great numbers of workers whose names and numbers don't match Social Security records.
DHS also wants to know whether the companies are engaged in businesses that pose a broader security threat, such as airports, seaports, and nuclear or chemical plants.
This week, the Knight Ridder Washington Bureau and The Charlotte Observer reported that possibly millions of illegal immigrants have hijacked Americans' numbers—and that federal agencies had alerted none of the victims.
IRS and Social Security officials said Wednesday that their hands are tied by federal tax codes that promise protection of taxpayer information.
"We could not arbitrarily do this on our own," said Social Security spokesman Mark Lassiter. "This is an issue that Congress will have to decide."
If the law is changed, Lassiter added, his agency will need more federal dollars to cover the costs of analyzing data to pinpoint unauthorized workers and then sending letters to millions of people whose Social Security numbers are being used by others.
At her Wednesday news conference, Myrick predicted that the costs would be minimal. She pointed out that the Social Security Administration already sends letters to employers who send in worker names and numbers that don't match.
Myrick also plans to introduce a bill that would end federal funding of highway and other projects if contractors knowingly employed illegal immigrants. The contractors also wouldn't be eligible for other federal contracts for two years.
The Charlotte Observer reported this week that portions of the I-77 highway in North Carolina were built by illegal immigrant laborers who were paid with state funds.
Myrick said she hopes to get a vote on her legislation this year. But it could stir opposition from privacy advocates such as the American Civil Liberties Union.
An ACLU official said Wednesday that his group sees little problem with requiring Social Security officials to alert citizens whose numbers are being used by others.
"It's OK to ... give a heads-up that people might be the victims of identify theft," said Mark Sparapani, the ACLU's counsel for privacy rights.
But he said Myrick's push to force the sharing of tax information would gut privacy laws in place for 30 years.
"There are well-defined IRS rules that say we're not going to share the private information of taxpayers," Sparapani said.
Sparapani also questioned whether DHS has the staff to use such information effectively and said work-site enforcement has been a low priority.
But Myrick said she's more concerned about protecting those whose numbers have been stolen.
Said Myrick: "It's an invasion of my privacy if someone is taking my Social Security number and using it."
Myrick also proposed barring North Carolina and five other states—West Virginia, Kentucky, Illinois, New Mexico and Utah—from allowing workers to use driver's licenses as identification for employment.
(Funk is the Washington correspondent for The Charlotte Observer. Chandler is a staff writer with The Observer.)
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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