US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) investigations in 2018 surged by 405% over 2017 to ensure a “culture of I9 compliance.” The agency’s stated goals are to:
- Prevent the abuse of workers;
- Deter further illegal immigration;
- Stop criminal activity, thereby enhancing public safety;
- Eliminate threats to national security and
- Protect lawful workers and companies from an unfair competitive advantage.
To these ends, ICE and Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) joined forces to produce stunning results from investigations to arrests over the previous year.
|I-9 audits initiated
As an investigative arm of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), ICE is specifically targeting two types of industries: (1) those that relate to the nation’s critical infrastructure and (2) those that have traditionally employed and have been known to exploit unauthorized workers. The agency may trigger an Employment Eligibility Verification Form (I-9) audit of any business for any reason, but some of its most visible cases of late started with tips from other DHS agencies through their unrelated investigations and from the tip form on ICE’s website. Tipsters are not required to provide their names or other identifying information so that they may choose to remain anonymous.
With the rising number of audits comes a slowdown in the process, sometimes taking a year to complete and further complicating a difficult and costly headache for HR professionals. Businesses must be aware of the current climate and take every possible step to avoid triggering an I-9 audit and the expensive sanctions that can follow.
While it can take years for the federal government to turn an audit into a conviction, several high-profile cases and trends have emerged in the last two years that should make business owners reevaluate their I-9 procedures for weaknesses. The consequences of others’ misdeeds are sobering.
- The owner of a slaughterhouse in Tennessee pleaded guilty to tax and wire fraud and employing illegal aliens. He will pay $1.4 million in restitution before his sentencing which may include prison time and fines. 104 alien employees were arrested on immigration violations.
- HSI arrested 17 people for a criminal conspiracy to exploit illegal laborers, fraud and money laundering and is investigating violations at agricultural businesses in Nebraska, Minnesota and Nevada.
- A Texas trailer manufacturer is under criminal investigation for hiring 160 people using identities stolen from US citizens.
- In FY2018, businesses were ordered to pay over $20.4 million in civil and criminal penalties. One Texas business forfeited over $5.5 million, and an Oklahoma business paid more than $1 million.
- FY2017 saw the largest financial penalty ever issued in an immigration case. Asplundh Tree Experts of Pennsylvania was ordered to forfeit $80 million and to pay an additional $15 million to settle civil claims for willful blindness to lower level practices of hiring and rehiring illegal aliens.
While the numbers of indictments and convictions remained relatively steady over the last year due to the time it takes to complete the process, the message is clear to HR professionals—make sure I-9 procedures are rock solid. ICE recommends that companies conduct self-audits to identify and correct issues before they become problems.