Thursday, June 12, 2008

Sun Valley Floral Farms loses half its work force in illegal immigration crackdown (Eureka Reporter)

Sun Valley Floral Farms loses half its work force in illegal immigration crackdown

By VIVIAN DUNLAP, The Eureka Reporter
Published: Jun 10 2008, 11:17 PM

“Yesterday was probably one of the hardest days,” Lane DeVries said. As president and CEO of the company that he has co-owned since 1991, Sun Valley Floral Farms, DeVries had to let go 283 of the company’s workers Monday in an illegal immigration work site enforcement sweep by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement organization, also known as “ICE.”

“I’ve been at Sun Valley for 25 years,” he said. “Of the group that we had to regretfully let go, there were people that had been with the company for 17 years.”

Still reeling from the experience, DeVries recalled how it all came about. “In November of last year, ICE requested that we provide I-9 forms of every team member that is working in our company, so we did so,” he explained. “They came to pick up the boxes with the I-9’s in them and we didn’t hear anything.”

Then, “Last Monday, we had a visit from an ICE agent with a letter saying a good number of our team members appeared to have their numbers, social security numbers or alien registration numbers, incorrect,” he explained.

“Regretfully, we had to let go about a little over half of our work force.”

Pat Reilly, public affairs spokesperson for ICE, said that what happened to Sun Valley Floral is not unusual, and a necessary enforcement step in the battle against illegal immigration.

“Work site enforcement is a priority for ICE. Why? Because we think this is the magnet that has contributed to illegal immigration,” she explained. “People are coming here to take jobs. By going and asking employers to join us in combating illegal immigration by showing due diligence in their hiring process, we are turning off the magnet. We are saying it is going to be harder for you to get a job.”

Reilly said that ICE focuses on ensuring that employers are complying with immigration laws by conducting inspections like the one that occurred at Sun Valley Floral. “We go to employers routinely to do I-9 inspections,” she explained. If it is found that employee’s numbers aren’t matching up to the proper identification, ICE takes the next step — which Reilly said entails “usually some kind of a notice that is sent out that says ‘you have irregularities in your I-9’s.’”

In addition, Reilly said that the Internet-based “E-Verify” system is in place at that employers can use to electronically verify the employment eligibility of their newly hired employees.

Operated by the Department of Homeland Security in partnership with the Social Security Administration, Reilly said “E-Verify can tell you if (employees) are using fraudulent numbers. They’re even getting to the point where there are pictures involved as well, because fraudulent ID’s are a nuisance.”

The ICE Web site states that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has “significantly enhanced its efforts to combat the unlawful employment of illegal aliens in the United States,” and, compared to the civil fines on employers of the past, today’s standards are much stronger.

“Today, ICE relies heavily on criminal prosecutions and the seizure of company assets to gain compliance from businesses that violate the employment provisions of our nation’s immigration laws,” the site states.

DeVries witnessed first-hand the “significantly enhanced” efforts that ICE speaks of in its Web site. “That is clearly what is happening here. The guidelines have changed over what happened in the past,” he said. “In the past when you hired someone, they provided a documentation. You checked based on authenticity and that was the standard. If a document appeared to look authentic, based on that standard, you hired someone. That standard has changed, and today there is a verification process. In that sense, moving forward it will be much clearer.”

“The fortunate news is that we are in one of our slower times right now,” DeVries said of the timing of it all. “If there is any consolation at all, that is at least one. Nonetheless, we have a lot of work to do.”

He said that Express Personnel was one of the first to offer assistance by bringing a group of 25 personnel Tuesday morning to help out. “We are also recruiting at the local high schools by getting both the graduates and the students that are out for the summer. We are also looking for radio and TV advertising, so we’re looking at a number of programs,” he said of restaffing the company, which ships flowers to wholesalers and supermarkets throughout the country.

Facing the problem of dealing with perishable crops and flowers that need to be picked and shipped, as well as bulbs that need to be harvested in the weeks to come, DeVries said there is only time to learn a lesson from the experience, pick up and keep going.

“We have our job cut out for us,” he said, “and it is by no means a cakewalk.”

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