Miriam Jordan, Wall Street Journal, June 4, 2015
Broetje Orchards in Washington state, one of the country’s largest apple growers, has agreed to pay a $2.25 million fine for hiring illegal immigrants. The fine is one of the largest ever levied against an agricultural concern, according to government officials who announced it Thursday.
The Broetje case, which dragged on for years, highlights the uncertain environment for employers as U.S. immigration policy remains in flux.
Since January 2009, the Obama administration has conducted immigration audits of more than 13,700 employers, mostly in the construction, hospitality, manufacturing and farming sectors. Companies have paid tens of millions of dollars in fines and had to dismiss thousands of workers.
“The Obama administration has eased up on enforcement for immigrant workers and their families, but not against employers,” said Tamar Jacoby, president of ImmigrationWorks USA, a network of employers in industries such as hospitality, construction and food processing that hire low-skilled workers. “Audits haven’t stopped.”
The civil penalty levied against Broetje on Thursday was for employing nearly 950 people who weren’t authorized to work in the U.S., according to Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The fate of the workers remains unclear. The majority are unlikely to be a priority for deportation, according to Obama policy that targets felons for removal from the U.S.
A family-run concern that grows apples and cherries on more than 4,000 acres in eastern Washington, Broetje was first found to have undocumented workers in a 2012 ICE audit. At the time, the federal agency’s investigators identified about 1,700 workers who were suspected of being in the U.S. illegally.
In ensuing years, Broetje management negotiated with the federal government and lobbied in Congress to avert a high-profile raid of its facilities by authorities and to spare longtime workers, according to sources familiar with the matter.
Under the settlement, Broetje doesn’t admit to criminal wrongdoing, but acknowledges that auditors found the company continued to employ unauthorized workers after being advised by ICE those employees didn’t have permission to work in the U.S.
Broetje is the largest employer in Walla Walla County. It has more than 1,000 permanent employees and hires up to 2,800 people during harvest season. Many of them live on the company’s grounds in Prescott, Wash., where the grower has built housing, school and a day care center for workers.