Num­ber of busi­nesses au­dited for il­le­gal im­mi­grants soars

Crit­ics say au­dits have pushed work­ers fur­ther un­der­ground and dis­rupted busi­nesses.

Austin American-Statesman - - FRONT PAGE -

By Manuel Valdes SEAT­TLE — U.S. Im­mi­gra­tion and Cus­toms En­force­ment reached its high­est num­ber yet of com­pa­nies au­dited for il­le­gal im­mi­grants on their pay­rolls this past fis­cal year.

Au­dits of em­ployer I-9 forms in­creased from 250 in fis­cal year 2007 to more than 3,000 in 2012. From fis­cal years 2009 to 2012, the to­tal amount of fines grew to nearly $13 mil­lion

Texas had the most work­places fined with 63, fol­lowed by New Jersey with 37.

from $1 mil­lion. The num­ber of com­pany man­agers ar­rested has in­creased to 238, ac­cord­ing to data pro­vided by ICE.

The in­ves­ti­ga­tions of com­pa­nies have been one of the pil­lars of Pres­i­dent Barack Obama’s im­mi­gra­tion pol­icy.

When Obama re­cently spoke about ad­dress­ing im­mi­gra­tion re­form in his sec­ond term, he said any mea­sure should con­tain penal­ties for com­pa­nies that pur­posely hire il­le­gal im­mi­grants. It’s not a new stand, but one he will likely high­light as his ad­min­is­tra­tion launches ef­forts to re­vamp the na­tion’s im­mi­gra­tion sys­tem.

“Our goal is com­pli­ance and de­ter­rence,” said Brad Bench, spe­cial agent in charge at ICE’s Seat­tle of­fice. “The ma­jor­ity of the com­pa­nies we do au­dits on end up with no fines at all, but again it’s part of the de­ter­rence method. If com­pa­nies know we’re out there, look­ing across the board, they’re more likely to bring them­selves into com­pli­ance.”

In fis­cal year 2011, the most re­cent year re­viewed by the As­so­ci­ated Press, the me­dian fine was $11,000. The state with the most work­places fined was Texas with 63, fol­lowed by New Jersey with 37.

The low­est fine was $90 to a Mas­sachusetts fish­ing com­pany. The high­est fine was $394,944 to an em­ploy­ment agency in Min­neapo­lis, ac­cord­ing to the data re­leased to AP through a pub­lic records re­quest.

While the ad­min­is­tra­tion has used those num­bers to bol­ster their record on im­mi­gra­tion en­force­ment, crit­ics say the au­dits have pushed work­ers fur­ther un­der­ground by caus­ing mass lay­offs and dis­rupted busi­ness prac­tices.

When the ICE au­dit let­ter ar­rived at Belco For­est Prod­ucts, man­age­ment wasn’t en­tirely sur­prised. Two nearby busi­nesses in Shel­ton, a small tim­ber town on a bay off Washington state’s Puget Sound, had al­ready been in­ves­ti­gated.

But the 2010 in­quiry be­came a months-long process that cost the tim­ber com­pany ex­pe­ri­enced work­ers and money.

It was fined $17,700 for tech­ni­cal­i­ties on their record keep­ing.

“What I don’t like is the roll of the dice,” said Belco’s chief fi­nan­cial of­fi­cer Tom Behrens. “Why do some com­pa­nies get au­dited and some don’t?”

Belco was one of 339 com­pa­nies fined in fis­cal year 2011 and one of thou­sands au­dited that year.

Em­ploy­ers are re­quired to have their work­ers fill out an I-9 form that de­clares them au­tho­rized to work in the coun­try. Cur­rently, an em­ployer needs only to ver­ify that iden­ti­fy­ing doc­u­ments look real.

The au­dits, part of a $138 mil­lion work site en­force­ment ef­fort, rely on ICE of­fi­cers scour­ing over pay­roll records to find names that don’t match So­cial Se­cu­rity num­bers and other iden­ti­fi­ca­tion data­bases.

The au­dits “don’t make any sense be­fore a le­gal­iza­tion pro­gram,” said Daniel Costa, an im­mi­gra­tion pol­icy an­a­lyst at the Eco­nomic Pol­icy In­sti­tute, a Washington, D.C., think tank. “You’re leav­ing the whole thing up to an em­ployer’s eye- sight and sub­jec­tive judg­ment, that’s the fail­ure of the law. There’s no ver­i­fi­ca­tion at all. Then all you have is the government mak­ing a sub­jec­tive judg­ment about sub­jec­tive judg­ment.”

Many em­ploy­ers also won­der how ICE picks the com­pa­nies it probes.

“Ge­og­ra­phy is not a fac­tor. The size of the com­pany is not a fac­tor. And the in­dus­try it’s in is not a fac­tor. We can au­dit any com­pany any­where of any size,” Bench said. He added ICE au­di­tors fol­low leads from the pub­lic, other em­ploy­ers, em­ploy­ees and do per­form some random au­dits.

But ICE au­di­tors hit eth­nic stores, restau­rants, bak­eries, man­u­fac­tur­ing com­pa­nies, con­struc­tion, food pack­ag­ing, jan­i­to­rial ser­vices, ca­ter­ing, dairies and farms. The avi­a­tion branch of cor­po­rate gi­ant GE, fran­chises of sand­wich shop Sub­way and a sub­sidiary of food prod­uct com­pany Heinz were among some of the com­pa­nies with na­tional name recog­ni­tion. GE was fined $2,000.

A Sub­way spokesman said the com­pany ad­vises fran­chise own­ers to fol­low the law. A Heinz spokesman de­clined com­ment.

Bench didn’t have specifics on what per­cent­age of fines come from com­pa­nies hav­ing il­le­gal im­mi­grants on their pay­roll, as op­posed to tech­ni­cal pa­per­work fines in re­cent years.

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