Crackdown on Illegal Workers Grows

Miriam Jordan, Wall Street Journal, January 20, 2011

The Obama administration plans to intensify a crackdown on employers of illegal immigrants with the establishment of an audit office designed to bolster verification of company hiring records.

In an interview, John Morton, chief of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, a unit of the Department of Homeland Security, said the Employment Compliance Inspection Center would “address a need to conduct audits even of the largest employers with a very large number of employees.” The office would be announced Thursday, he said.

Mr. Morton said that the center would be staffed with specialists who will pore over the I-9 employee files collected from companies targeted for audits.

In the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, 2010, ICE conducted audits of more than 2,740 companies, nearly twice as many as the previous year. The agency levied a record $7 million in civil fines on businesses that employed illegal workers.

Enforcement activity during the Bush administration focused on high-profile raids in which thousands of illegal immigrants were arrested and placed in deportation proceedings. Relatively few companies and their executives were prosecuted.

In contrast, the Obama administration has made employers the center of its immigration policy with “silent raids.” Critics say the policy has penalized small employers while failing to target larger employers.

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The audits, which have affected garment makers, fruit growers and meat packers, result in the firing of every illegal immigrant on a company’s payroll. Companies say this has hurt them, especially as they can’t attract American workers even during an economic downturn.

Last year, for example, Gebbers Farm, an agricultural concern in Brewster, Wash., dismissed an estimated 550 workers–about a quarter of the local population–after ICE told the company a number of its employees’ hiring documents were suspect. {snip}

Tom Roach, an immigration attorney in Pasco, Wash., said a client lost more than half of his workforce last year owing to an audit. “He had paid every nickel of taxes on them,” he said. But the employees had presented social-security cards that the landscape company couldn’t discern were fake, said Mr. Roach.

Small business owners, in particular, say they don’t have the ability to police their workers. They also fear discrimination suits, as some companies have experienced, for demanding additional documents from workers whom they suspect are in the country illegally.

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