WASHINGTON — Every few weeks for nearly four years, the Secret Service screened the IDs of employees of a Maryland cleaning company before they entered the house of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, the nation's top immigration official.
The company's owner says the workers sailed through the checks -- although some of them were actually illegal immigrants.
Now, owner James Reid finds himself in a predicament that he considers especially confounding. In October, he was fined $22,880 after Immigration and Customs Enforcement investigators said he failed to check identification and work documents and to fill out required I-9 verification forms for employees, five of whom he said were part of crews sent to Chertoff's home and whom ICE told him to fire because they were undocumented.
"Our people need to know," Reid said. "Our Homeland Security can't police their own home. How can they police our borders?"
Reid admits he made mistakes but called the fine so excessive that it might put him out of business. Several of his workers moved after ICE agents showed up at their homes, he said.
Raising a common objection among employers as ICE cracks down on illegal hirings across the nation, Reid said it is unreasonable to expect businesspeople to distinguish between fake and real driver's licenses and Social Security cards.
Immigration laws are unevenly enforced, he added, allowing big companies to stay in business while crushing small-business owners and workers. He said the rules punish "scapegoats" like him while inviting people at every level -- customers, subcontractors and contractors -- to look the other way while benefiting economically from cheaper labor.
"No one wants to put the blame on the head; they'd rather put the blame on the business owner," said Reid, who owns Consistent Cleaning Services. "Damned if I should be fined for employees that I took over to their house."
Chertoff declined to comment.
"We're very constrained in what we can say about anybody who has any kind of issue with the department," he said.
The Secret Service uses workers' ID information to conduct security checks, not immigration checks, much as most police departments do when they pull over people for traffic stops.
Eric Zahren, a spokesman for the service, which is part of Chertoff's department, declined to discuss specific screening practices. But he said agents protecting the secretary "would have run the appropriate checks, screened and escorted people as appropriate in order to maintain the security of the residence and our protectee's security."
Department of Homeland Security spokesman Russ Knocke said that in this type of investigation, ICE focuses on the employers, not where employees are dispatched. He said that contractors have the responsibility of ensuring that their workers are legal, and that the Chertoffs were assured by Reid that workers sent to their home were legal. Upon learning that Reid might have hired illegal immigrants, the Chertoffs stopped using his firm, and the secretary recused himself from the department's subsequent enforcement actions, Knocke said.
"This matter illustrates the need for comprehensive immigration reform and the importance of effective tools for companies to determine the lawful status of their workforce," he said.
The Bush administration has pushed to expand employers' use of E-Verify, for instance, an electronic system that can confirm new hires' work documents against federal databases.
In addition to the Chertoffs' house, Reid said, his service once cleaned the Washington home of former President Clinton and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), now secretary of State-designee, as well as the homes of another Bush Cabinet member and of former Clinton Secretary of State Madeline Albright. In those cases, he said, his company worked as a subcontractor and billing was done by a larger contractor firm.
Reid said he was referred to the Chertoffs in 2005 and worked mainly with the secretary's wife, Meryl Chertoff, an adjunct professor and director of the Sandra Day O'Connor Project on the State of the Judiciary at Georgetown Law School. Reid's calendar shows that the Chertoffs paid $185 per visit for his company to clean their suburban Maryland home.