Federal officials Wednesday notified more than 650 businesses around the country, including nearly 50 in Los Angeles, that their records will be audited as part of a widening effort to find companies that hire illegal immigrants.
The number of notices issued is the largest ever in a single day and exceeds the total sent out in all of fiscal 2008, Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials said.
"Part of the strategy is to let businesses know we mean business," agency spokeswoman Pat Reilly said.
The Obama administration has made tougher enforcement aimed at employers a cornerstone of its immigration policy. In April, the federal government issued new guidelines to immigration agents instructing them to focus on employers who hire illegal immigrants rather than just to arrest workers. The government is also working to improve and expand an employment verification program. The targeted companies, which include firms in New York, San Antonio, Seattle and San Diego, were identified through tips and leads, officials said.
The notices are the government's first step in what could be a lengthy investigation. Immigration agents plan to review the I-9 forms and identification documents at all 652 companies. Those with significant numbers of undocumented workers may be fined. And if agents believe the businesses knowingly hired illegal immigrants or find "a pattern of egregious violations," criminal investigations could be launched, Reilly said. The government did not release the names of any of the companies to be audited, but Reilly said they represent a broad range of industries.
The immigration agency also notified 80 companies, including three in Los Angeles, that it planned to fine them because they employ large numbers of people who do not appear to be authorized to work in the U.S. Immigration agents had earlier conducted audits on those companies' records and, in many cases, determined that the Social Security numbers listed for employees either did not exist or did not belong to the employees specified.
A government audit of one such company, Los Angeles-based American Apparel, showed that 1,600 of its roughly 10,000 employees may not be authorized to work and the employment status of 200 others could not be verified, according to Peter Schey, an attorney for the company. The fine, which could exceed $100,000, will become final in 30 days unless American Apparel requests a court hearing. If the company continues to employ people who have no work authorization, it could face criminal action.
Schey said the government audit, which began in early 2008, did not disclose any exploitation or any intent to violate immigration laws. American Apparel is working with the government and the company's employees to clear up the discrepancies, he said. The attorney said many of the issues may be a result of typographical errors or honest mistakes but that employees who cannot prove they are authorized to work will be let go.
"Any manufacturing company in an area with a large immigrant community is inevitably going to have employees using unauthorized documents," Schey said. "It doesn't take a rocket scientist to determine that. That is just a reality in life today in light of the broken immigration system."
Businesses are forbidden by law to hire illegal immigrants but often do so unwittingly. Employers are required to review, and keep, identification and work authorization documents and to complete a form, called an I-9, recording that information for each employee. They are not required, however, to determine whether those documents are valid.
Companies can check the employment status of new hires through E-Verify, the online verification system, but the program is voluntary in California and most other states. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano has called the program an "essential tool" for employers trying to maintain a legal workforce and is trying to expand its use across the country.
The new employment enforcement strategies, including the increased use of I-9 audits, mark a shift from the George W. Bush administration, said Stephen Lee, a professor at UC Irvine School of Law who has written about immigration enforcement against employers. Under President George W. Bush, work-site raids and arrests of illegal immigrant workers were common. The Obama administration has criticized those raids as ineffective and harmful to families.
"What is very clear is that the Obama administration is sending a signal," Lee said. "Gone are the days where only the unauthorized workers will be punished. Employers who hire these workers are going to be on the hook as well."
Lee said the pending audits may prompt unauthorized workers to go home and not return to work the next day. He said they could also result in more discrimination, as employers try to avoid hiring unauthorized immigrants and shy away from anyone who could be undocumented.