WASHINGTON -- Employers warned yesterday that the Bush administration's crackdown on illegal immigration could prompt firings, discourage hiring and send some growers overseas.
A wave of fresh worries about labor shortages greeted the administration's new rules, unveiled yesterday, that would strengthen enforcement against employers and stiffen penalties for hiring undocumented workers. Officials promised to help meet labor needs by streamlining programs that bring temporary foreign workers into the United States.
"Everyone's very anxious," said Paul Schlegel, director of public policy for the American Farm Bureau Federation. "We're heading into the busiest time of the year for agriculture, so you're going to see a lot of worry from farmers and employers about how you deal with this."
The industry group, which represents 75 percent of U.S. farmers, estimates that at least half the nation's 1 million farm workers do not have valid Social Security numbers. Losing them would devastate the industry, particularly fruit and vegetable growers, which rely heavily on manual labor, farmers said.
Construction, janitorial and landscaping companies, and hotels and restaurants also count on large numbers of illegal workers.
"We are concerned that the new regulations will result in employers in numerous industries having to let workers go as the economy is facing an increasingly tight labor market," said John Gay of the National Restaurant Association.
The administration policy, which will become effective in 30 days, puts pressure on Congress to transform an immigration system that is widely considered to need reform.
A Senate bill that would have stiffened enforcement while giving legal status to an estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants collapsed when many senators called it an amnesty that invited more illegal immigration.
The new rules are designed to answer that objection by showing the administration's willingness to enforce the laws on the books and to get tough with illegal arrivals and those who hire them.
"Obviously, there are employers who deliberately violate the law, and we will come down on them like a ton of bricks, as we have been doing," Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said while announcing the rules.
Under current rules, the government notifies employers when a worker's Social Security number does not match federal records. Under the new rules, employers will be expected to fire employees who are unable to clear up such a discrepancy within 90 days. Failure to comply will lead to fines.
"We're not looking to punish people for honest mistakes, clerical errors or imperfections in process," Chertoff said. "This rule is designed to create a safe harbor for those who act in good faith, even if they make mistakes."
Chertoff and Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez said they beefed up enforcement of laws after Congress failed to pass a comprehensive immigration-reform bill.
"We're going as far as we possibly can without Congress acting," White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said.
Rick Ross, a Bell Glade, Fla., farmer, said the current "onerous" guest-worker provisions increase overhead costs.
"It's not something any employer wants to go through," said Ross, who is vice president of the Florida Farm Bureau. "It's a real nightmare."
Labor shortages did not materialize during winter harvests in Florida this year, but Ross said tougher enforcement could have that effect next winter.
In other states, the labor pool for farms dried up last year when the government stressed border control. In California, pears rotted on the ground.
Many workers in legal limbo will find a much tougher job market, predicted Greg Schell, managing attorney at the Migrant Farmworker Justice Project based in Lake Worth, Fla.
"Are they really going to enforce it? If they do, it's going to have a huge impact," Schell said. "Short-term, a lot are going to lose their jobs or go underground. There will be a huge displacement, and people will be more frightened than before. But long-term, if it pushes Congress to make comprehensive reform, that would be a real plus for workers."
William E. Gibson and Ruth Morris write for the Florida Sun-Sentinel. The Associated Press contributed to this article.