Are you concerned about a government agency showing up at your office door to see if you have been hiring illegal workers? Investigations are on the rise and you can be hit with some severe penalties if you’re not in compliance.
Brett Dreyer, worksite enforcement chief for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) says they are always on the lookout for “egregious employers.” Even single-location companies with only a handful of employees are subject to investigation.
“We don’t investigate based solely on the type of industry, yet the reality is that certain industries are more likely to have unauthorized workers.” Dreyer asserts.
This differs from the tactics of ICE’s predecessor, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, which was dissolved in 2003 and targeted specific business sectors believed more likely to hire illegal immigrants.
Case in point is the staffing industry. Google the words ‘immigration’ and ‘staffing’ and it will return dozens of newspaper articles from all over the country about staffing companies who have hired undocumented workers.
ICE believes there are about eight million unauthorized workers in the United States. Dreyer says a business’s size or the number of people it hires has no bearing on whether it is investigated.
But if they do ever come knocking, trying to do the right thing when it comes to proper Form I-9 procedures will have a bearing on how ICE views your situation .
“We understand an employer is not a document expert,” Dreyer says. “If a document appears to be genuine and the employer appears to be acting in good faith, he or she isn’t likely to be fined.”
ICE recommends employers use its IMAGE program, which provides education and training in hiring. IMAGE requires the use of E-Verify, an employment verification program allowing employers to compare an employee’s I-9 information with more than 455 million records in the Social Security Administration’s database.
The bigger part of the program, according to Dreyer, is the education component. ICE has an IMAGE coordinator in each of its field offices across the country and they are trained on compliance issues.
“Those agents provide free education and training to employers, and offer advice on how best to comply with the law.”
The feds say they aren’t out to get you, but instead are “trying to create a culture of compliance.”
In 2010, ICE conducted a record 2,700 work site investigations. They expect to exceed that number this year.
“We are looking to get to employers in all 50 states and territories,” Dreyer said.
ICE agents are checking for simple mistakes, such as blanks left unfilled, maiden names not changed to married names and forms that had taken longer than the maximum three days from date of employment for completion.
Companies are typically allowed to correct these minor errors with no fines levied, and business continues as usual.
Agents are also looking for more severe transgressions.
Employers can face penalties of fines or even prison terms if the feds are able to determine they acted in bad faith by knowingly employing unauthorized workers or failing to follow the Form I-9 process.
Beware, though. An employer must balance the need for proper papers with the need to not discriminate.
“An employer cannot specify what documents a prospective employee must present,” Dreyer says. Those are noted on the back of the I-9 form. ”Employers can be also fined for over-verifying or re-verifying when not required.”
Yikes. I guess you had better be paying attention to this if you’re not already.
Here are some tips for avoiding troubles with ICE:
- Be meticulous about following the rules
- Make sure every box is checked and all dates are correct
- When you hire somebody, their I-9 has to be completed within three days
- Also, an I-9 for each employee must be filed for three years after the date of hire or one year after employment is terminated, whichever is later
- Have one person, such as an office manager, fill out all the forms for consistency
- Store I-9 forms separately from other employment records (you only want to give ICE what they’re asking for, which is the I-9 form)
- Purge files of older, outdated forms (same reason as above)
- Take compliance seriously
You can find a list of ICE’s “best hiring practices” at www.ice.gov/image/best-practice.htm