Posted on February 14, 2018

California Employers in a Bind over Immigration Enforcement

Nour Malas, Wall Street Journal, February 13, 2018

After reports recently rippled across California’s agricultural heartland that immigration agents might audit farms, Bryan Little of the California Farm Bureau Federation sent an email alert to thousands of farmers warning them not to run afoul of a new state law governing their interactions with federal immigration officials.

The law requires California employers to ask immigration agents for warrants or subpoenas before allowing them access to private areas of the workplace or confidential employee records. Employers who break the law, which took effect in January, face fines of up to $10,000.

Businesses are increasingly caught between California and Washington as the state seeks to shield illegal immigrants from deportation, and the Trump administration intensifies enforcement. As the state works out how to enforce the law, employers say the new requirements are confusing.


Shortly after the law went into effect, federal immigration agents served audit notices to 7-Eleven convenience stores across California, part of a national audit of the stores. A number of workers were arrested in California stores as those audits were served, according to state officials.

Democratic State Attorney General Xavier Becerra responded by warning businesses to heed the law. In a press conference, he reminded employers “that if they voluntarily start giving up information about their employees in ways that contradict our new California laws, they subject themselves to actions by my office.”

Mr. Becerra issued new guidance Tuesday with the state labor commissioner that lays out what the state law requires, or prohibits, employers to do.


David Chiu, the California Assembly member who drafted the legislation, called recent immigration-enforcement audits in the state “a deeply cynical attempt to scare law abiding Californian workers into quitting their jobs and to disrupt our thriving California economy.”

Nearly three weeks after the 7-Eleven raids, agents served notices of inspection to about 77 businesses in San Francisco, Sacramento, San Jose, and surrounding areas, said James Schwab, a spokesman for the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, known as ICE.


Federal law requires immigration agents to present a notice of inspection, which gives employers three days to provide documents showing their workers are eligible to work in the U.S. The agents often, but not always, carry warrants or other formal written orders to compel compliance, according to state and federal officials. The California law requires employers to ask for those documents before releasing more detailed information.


Mr. Schwab, of ICE, said the law “reflects yet another effort by the State of California to interfere with federal immigration enforcement authorities.”

Sandra Diaz, vice president of United Service Workers West, a union representing janitors, airport workers, and security guards, said many low-wage workers are happy to have additional protections.


Still, many business owners in California say they aren’t sure exactly what the new law means. Some small-business owners hadn’t heard of it, and those who had said they weren’t sure they’d be able to recognize a warrant or subpoena.

Others said the new law could push more immigrants to work as independent contractors, which employers sometimes use to bypass having to confirm whether immigrants can legally work, according to employers in agriculture, the restaurant business, and housekeeping.


Meanwhile, Bakersfield-area farmer Steven Murray said the feuding between Washington and Sacramento clouds solutions to what he said is a broader and more urgent issue: how to legalize millions of illegal immigrants already a part of the American workforce.