Sunday, April 17, 2011

Officials audit Tri-City eatery to catch illegal immigrants (Tri-City Herald)

Officials audit Tri-City eatery to catch illegal immigrants
By Kristi Pihl, Herald staff writer

One Tri-City business has learned the hard way about U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s switch from random workplace raids to audits of businesses’ paperwork.

Pasco immigration attorney Tom Roach said that the restaurant was among 1,000 businesses nationwide that had their I-9 forms audited by ICE since February.

The one-page I-9 form, which is required to establish employees’ eligibility to work in the U.S., can be tricky, Roach said. In fact, the employer instruction booklet for the form is 65 pages long.

Roach said the Tri-City restaurant’s I-9 forms all had technical errors. And so did five companies that recently hired him to review their I-9 forms.

Employers can be fined from $110 to $1,100 per form for technical mistakes even if their workers are legal.

The audits are a result of a change in tactics by ICE, which in 2009 began focusing on I-9 inspections and civil fines rather than random raids looking for illegal immi grants.

Virginia Kice, ICE’s Western regional communications director, said, “Inspections (of the I-9 forms) are one of the most powerful tools the federal government has to ensure that businesses are complying with U.S. employment laws.”

Washington reportedly has the 11th-largest illegal immigrant population in the nation, according to a report by the Pew Hispanic Center, a nonpartisan think tank.

Pew estimates the state had 230,000 illegal immigrants last year, and that 5 percent of the state’s work force, or 190,000 workers, are undocumented immigrants.

Stacy Gilmore, Franklin County Farm Bureau president, said if growers are educated about the I-9 forms, the audits aren’t a big issue.

But Dan Fazio, director of the Washington Farm Labor Association, argues the I-9 audits “are ridiculous and pointless.”

He reviews I-9 forms for businesses and tells them what an ICE audit likely would find.

Fazio said most ICE audits seem to find technical violations. Even if illegal immigrants are found, he said, his experience is that those people lose their job but nothing else really happens.

It’s just a “paperwork drill,” he said.

But Kice said the I-9 audits are part of ICE’s work force enforcement strategy and can lay the groundwork for prosecution if an employer is intentionally violating the law.

“ICE is increasing its criminal and civil enforcement of immigration-related employment laws and imposing smart, tough employer sanctions to even the playing field for businesses that play by the rules,” she said.

Last year, ICE conducted 2,196 audits of I-9 forms nationwide compared with 1,444 in 2009. Fines were issued in 237 cases totaling almost $7 million.

It’s a criminal offense if someone who is not a citizen claims to be a citizen on their I-9 form, Roach said.

He said employers aren’t required to verify an employee’s Social Security number or the “A number” found on an employee’s green card, but they are required to look at the card.

Fazio said a problem is that employers can have applicants fill out an I-9 form only after they are hired. If their documents appear genuine and seem to belong to the employee, an employer must accept them.

Fazio said the federal government needs a workable program for foreign labor and a way for employers to verify a person’s right to work before hiring them. He said what’s needed is a database that lists every legal worker, and which employers could check to see if an applicant is eligible to work in the country.

ICE encourages employers to use E-Verify, a free system that employers can check to see an employee is authorized to work. But it’s not mandated, and Fazio said an employer can wait weeks to get a response because E-Verify doesn’t have a single database.

With farmers who hire temporary workers for several weeks, it doesn’t work, he said.

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