On Oct 31 2010 by Elise A. Fialkowski

ICE Announces Record Breaking Number of Worksite Enforcement Investigations, Penalties and Fines

This month, Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Janet Napolitano and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Director John Morton announced that ICE’s worksite enforcement numbers have climbed to historic highs with record breaking numbers of I-9 audits, fines and increased criminal prosecution of employers.

ICE announced that since January 2009, it has conducted I-9 audits of more than 3,200 US employers, more than ever before. By comparison, in fiscal year 2009—itself a banner year for I-9 audits–ICE conducted approximately 1400 audits. The audits conducted since January 2009 also resulted in record breaking penalties–ICE debarred 225 companies and individuals from doing business with the federal government and imposed approximately $50 million in sanctions for worksite enforcement violations. The increase in audits and sanctions is dramatic–ICE explained that the figures for just this year are higher than the total amount of audits and debarments for the entire Bush administration.

ICE also actively pursued criminal enforcement of employers–in fiscal year 2010, ICE charged 180 business owners, employers, managers, or supervisors with hiring illegal aliens, up from 135 in fiscal 2008 and 114 in fiscal 2009.

ICE pledged to continue aggressive enforcement against employers stating “enforcing worksite laws not only promotes fairness in the workplace, but it also substantially reduces the incentive for aliens to enter the United States illegally.”

These record breaking numbers reflect implementation of a new worksite enforcement strategy first announced by the Obama administration in April 2009. Rather than large scale raids, the new focus is on employers. As part of this strategy, ICE identified I-9 audits as an important administrative tool in building criminal cases, issuing civil penalties such as fines and bringing employers into compliance with the law. Not only will ICE use traditional criminal enforcement methods, but the guidance to the field emphasizes that administrative tools will be used “to advance criminal cases, and in the absence of criminal charges, to support the imposition of civil fines and other available penalties.” Indeed, the guidance makes clear that the “the most important administrative tool is the Notice of Inspection (NOI) and the resulting Form I-9 audit” as it will not only support the imposition of civil fines and other available penalties, but it “will often serve as an important first step in the criminal investigation and prosecution of employers.”

Consistent with this use of I-9 audits as the key administrative tool, ICE announced a nationwide initiative to audit employers’ Form I-9 employment eligibility verification records. As part of this initiative, in the first week of July 2009 alone, ICE issued Notices of Inspection (NOI) to over 650 employers across the country. In comparison, only 503 Notices of Inspection were issued in all of fiscal year 2008. As explained in earlier postings, ICE continued such widespread audits throughout the year, ultimately resulting in over 3200 audits. This widespread enforcement initiative is much different than any in the past. In the past, initiatives often focused on the most likely offenders—employers in industries such as meat-packing, construction, landscaping and manufacturing—commonly believed to regularly hire unauthorized workers. While these businesses were included within the I-9 audits, the reach was much broader to include a wide variety of businesses throughout the entire country. The message is clear—no employer is safe from an I-9 audit and investigation.

In order to avoid potential liability, employers are well advised to develop and implement detailed I-9 policies and practices. ICE recommends that employers, at a minimum, establish an internal training program, with annual updates, on how to manage completion of Form I-9 and how to detect fraudulent use of documents in the I-9 process; permit the I-9 and any E-Verify process to be conducted only by individuals who have received training; and include a review of the completed I-9 and documents by a second person as part of each employee’s verification to minimize the potential for a single individual to subvert the process. Regular audits–conducted before ICE comes knocking on the door– are also key to obtain compliance and limit liability.

For more information, contact Elise Fialkowski at Efialkowski@klaskolaw.com