Chris Strohm, GovExec.com, Mar. 18
The chief of the Homeland Security Department’s largest investigative arm on Friday called on corporations to come clean if they employ illegal immigrants, or face civil or criminal penalties.
Assistant Secretary Michael Garcia announced that the Immigration and Customs Enforcement bureau had reached the largest civil settlement ever of a case involving alleged hiring of illegal immigrants. Under the settlement, Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., agreed to pay the government $11 million and implement an unprecedented compliance and training program, including a commitment never to employ illegal aliens.
“This is a milestone for corporate responsibility and it sends a strong precedent that we look to other companies to follow,” Garcia said.
The financial penalty is minor, however, when compared with Wal-Mart’s total worth. For fiscal 2004, Wal-Mart had revenues of $285 billion and net income of $10.3 billion.
The settlement does not entail any admission of wrongdoing by Wal-Mart, and no criminal charges have been filed against the retailer or its associates.
According to the settlement, 12 cleaning companies contracted by Wal-Mart hired illegal immigrants. The companies were owned by Christopher Walters, who recruited workers from 24 countries and brought them to the United States under visitor visas. He hired them and transferred them between Wal-Mart stores nationwide.
The cleaning companies have agreed to pay $4 million and agreed to enter guilty pleas to criminal immigration charges. Walters faces criminal charges.
ICE is in charge of enforcing the nation’s interior immigration laws. Garcia said the case should send two messages to other corporations.
“Come in and come in early is sound advice,” he said. “You’ll have an opportunity to be a good corporate citizen and work with us in establishing a cutting-edge compliance program that will help us enforce the law and will keep you out of trouble.
“On the other hand,” he added, “if you knowingly hire illegal workers, you will be criminally prosecuted and you’ll also pay substantial fines. This is a big case and it’s a beginning in terms of corporate responsibility and corporate liability.”
Statistics show that the number of worksite enforcement immigration cases has actually declined over the years. In fiscal 2004, ICE levied 64 sanctions against employers for hiring illegal workers for a total of about $120,000 in fines.
More sanctions were made before ICE was created. For example, in fiscal 2001 the government levied 292 sanctions against employers for a total of about $1.6 million in fines. In 1999, there were 890 sanctions for a total of about $3.7 million in fines.
So far this fiscal year, however, ICE has reached a settlement with DeCoster Farms for hiring illegal workers, under which the company agreed to pay $2.1 million, and levied the multimillion-dollar fine against Wal-Mart.
“It shows we’re going after bigger . . . money,” said ICE spokesman Manny Van Pelt. “We may have smaller investigations, but we’re going for a larger breadth of investigations and bigger civil settlements and criminal fines.”
Wal-Mart acknowledged in a statement that its compliance program did not include all the procedures necessary to identify independent floor cleaning contractors who did not comply with federal immigration laws.
“The government can now use the funds for training and other initiatives that lead to better detection and prosecution of individuals and companies that prey on undocumented individuals,” said Tom Mars, Wal-Mart’s general counsel. “We will use this as an opportunity to improve and be a better, more tightly run business as a result.”
Garcia said ICE is discussing compliance programs with other corporations, but he declined to elaborate.
Officials on Friday said the investigation represented strong cooperation between local, state and federal law enforcement.
The case began in 1998 when local law enforcement in Honesdale, Pa., started investigating whether illegal immigrants were working at a local Wal-Mart store. The Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office began investigating irregular bank activity by the cleaning companies owned by Walters. Agents Daniel Licklider and Abel Rios with the Attorney General’s Office were probing the companies for alleged money laundering when the former Immigration and Naturalization Service informed them that the companies were employing illegal immigrants.
The follow-up investigation culminated in October 2003 with a series of immigration enforcement actions at about 60 Wal-Mart stores in 21 states. In total, ICE agents arrested 352 illegal immigrants.
Thomas Marino, U.S. Attorney General for the Middle District of Pennsylvania, said he does not believe that Wal-Mart knew the workers were illegal aliens.
The settlement permanently enjoins Wal-Mart from knowingly hiring, recruiting and continuing to employ illegal aliens. Within the next 18 months Wal-Mart also has to establish a means to verify that independent contractors are taking “reasonable steps” to comply with immigration laws, and also provide all current and future store managers with training on immigration employment laws.