When is a “Safe Harbor” not so Safe: New Immigration Regulations for No-Match Letters
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) issued new regulations that create a "safe-harbor" for employers who either receive a (i) no-match letter from the Social Security Administration or (ii) written notice from DHS questioning an I-9 Form. Employers who follow the protocol and timeline set forth in the regulations will not be charged with "constructive knowledge of employment of an unauthorized worker"; hence, being shielded from civil and criminal sanctions in a subsequent DHS audit. However, when one examines the safe-harbor, it clearly puts the employer in a position of terminating employees who cannot meet government requirements and time frames thereby facing discrimination claims and employee backlash.
The safe-harbor protocol requires that the employer complete the following steps within the prescribed time frames:
- Within 30 days of the letter, check employer records to determine if there is an employer error like a typo or transcribed number/misspelled name.
- If unresolved, employers must ask the employee to confirm accuracy of records. (Employers may wish to immediately inform employees about their obligation to resolve the disparity explaining that resolution of the mismatch could take time…. a lot of time).
- If the employer is able to resolve the mismatch, the employer should follow the instruction in the No-Match letter.
- If unresolved, the employer should inform the employee that the employee has 90 days from the date the employer received the No-Match letter to resolve the matter with SSA.
- If the discrepancy is not resolved within 90 days of receipt of the No-Match letter, the employer should complete, within three days, a new I-9 Form as if the employee in question were newly hired, except that no document may be used to verify the employee’s authorization for work that uses the questionable Social Security number. Additionally, the employee must present a document that contains a photograph in order to establish identity or both identity and employment authorization.
Completing a new Form I-9 without reliance on the old disputed documents or social security numbers, will be difficult if not impossible. Furthermore, reliance on the government’s voluntary E-verify system provides no safe harbor for I-9 compliance. If the employee is unable under such circumstances to provide satisfactory documentation, the I-9 instructions state that "employment should be discontinued." In the case the employee provided false information but somehow manage to comply with the Form I-9 requirements the second time, the same instruction suggest an employer follow its policy on employees who provide false information.
In either case, an employer is prohibited from discriminating against applicants or employees based on their national origin. Employers must also manage the perception among employees that this bureaucratic approach to national immigration policy isn’t the employer’s doing. The new regulations create a "safe-harbor" from DHS prosecution and an employee relations perfect storm.