More than 6,000 businesses around the country have been subjected to worksite immigration investigations since Oct. 1, 2017, and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, has made 675 criminal and 984 administrative worksite-related arrests, the federal agency announced Tuesday.
That audit-and-arrest rate, marking the fiscal year-to-date from October through July 20, is significantly higher than during all of fiscal 2017 — October 2016 through September 2017 — when the agency said it initiated 1,716 worksite investigations, and conducted 1,360 I-9 audits.
For that full year, ICE made 139 criminal arrests and 172 administrative arrests related to worksite enforcement.
If the current rate continues through the end of this fiscal year, ICE is on pace to open more than 7,600 worksite investigations, an increase of more than 443 percent, according to immigration attorney Jim O’Brien of the law firm O’Brien Law LLC in Washington, D.C.
“What’s significant is that I-9 investigations have been dormant for years,” O’Brien said. “This administration promised early on — and it appears they are delivering — a big increase in employer audits.”
ICE did not indicate what industries were involved in the reported investigations, but restaurants and hotels have traditionally been targeted, O’Brien said.
Derek Benner, acting executive associate director for ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations, or HSI, said in a statement the agency is carrying out its commitment to increase the number of I-9 audits in an effort to create a culture of compliance among employers.
The agency contends that worksite enforcement helps combat worker exploitation, illegal wages, child labor and other illegal practices, as well as criminal activity like alien smuggling, human trafficking, money laundering and document fraud.
“This is not a victimless crime,” he said. “Unauthorized workers often use stolen identities of legal U.S. workers, which can significantly impact the identity theft victim’s credit, medical records and other aspects of their everyday life.”
In 2018 alone, roughly 5,200 businesses were served with audit notices in two phases since the end of January, ICE said.
During the first phase between Jan. 29 and March 30, HSI served 2,540 notices of inspection, and made 61 arrests, the agency said.
During a second phase from July 16 to 20, the agency served another 2,738 notices of inspection and made 32 arrests.
Employers face civil fines and potential criminal prosecution if they knowingly violate the Immigration Reform and Control Act, which requires employers to verify the identity and work eligibility of those they hire.
In fiscal 2017, businesses were ordered to pay $97.6 million in judicial forfeitures, fines and restitution and $7.8 million in civil fines, the agency said.
“Employers need to understand that the integrity of their employment records is just as important to the federal government as the integrity of their tax files and banking records,” Benner said in the statement.
O’Brien said the message to employers is to be prepared.
“Be prepared by self-auditing,” he said. “And contact your legal counsel if ICE does show up.”
If ICE shows up with a search warrant, usually in an early morning raid, restaurant employers should make sure managers know what to do, he added.
If it’s a judicial warrant, for example, the employer needs to comply. But if it’s an administrative warrant there is not a legal obligation to consent to entry and search, said O’Brien, “though there have been instances where ICE would like you to believe there is a legal obligation, and that’s why it’s important to check with counsel.”
If employers are served with a notice of inspection, they have three days to respond and provide I-9 documentation, he said.
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