Cleaning Firm Used Illegal Workers at Chertoff Home

Spencer S. Hsu, Washington Post, December 11, 2008

Every few weeks for nearly four years, the Secret Service screened the IDs of employees for a Maryland cleaning company before they entered the house of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, the nation’s top immigration official.

The company’s owner says the workers sailed through the checks—although some of them turned out to be illegal immigrants.

Now, owner James D. Reid finds himself in a predicament that he considers especially confounding. In October, he was fined $22,880 after U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement investigators said he failed to check identification and work documents and fill out required I-9 verification forms for employees, five of whom he said were part of crews sent to Chertoff’s home and whom ICE told him to fire because they were undocumented.

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Immigration laws are unevenly enforced, he [Reid] added, allowing big companies to stay in business while crushing small-business owners and workers. He said the rules punish “scapegoats” such as him while inviting people at every level—customers, subcontractors and contractors—to look the other way while benefiting economically from cheaper labor.

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Eric Zahren, a spokesman for the service, which is part of Chertoff’s department, declined to discuss specific screening practices. But he said agents protecting the secretary “would have run the appropriate checks, screened and escorted people as appropriate in order to maintain the security of the residence and our protectee’s security.”

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“This matter illustrates the need for comprehensive immigration reform and the importance of effective tools for companies to determine the lawful status of their workforce,” he [Department of Homeland Security spokesman Russ Knocke] said.

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In addition to the Chertoffs’ house, Reid said, his service once cleaned the Washington home of former president Bill Clinton and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), now secretary of state-designee, as well as homes of another Bush Cabinet member and Clinton Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright. In those cases, he said, his company worked as a subcontractor and billing was done by a larger contractor firm.

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Nantel [ICE spokeswoman Kelly Nantel] declined to say when the Chertoffs learned of the investigation. She likened the couple to restaurant or hotel customers who take the owner’s word that its workers are legal.

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Chertoff’s situation appeared to be different from a case announced last week in which federal prosecutors arrested Lorraine Henderson, the Boston port director for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, another part of Chertoff’s department, on charges that she repeatedly hired illegal immigrants to clean her condominium.

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