Mar 13, 2014
Fewer, more vigorous I-9 audits to be conducted

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has some good news for employers: There will be fewer mandatory I-9 audits.

The bad news?

The audits that do occur will be “more vigorous,” according to Cory Howe, a special agent with the department.

Howe made his announcement at the 2014 Annual West Michigan Ag. Labor Meeting, held in Grand Rapids, Mich., Feb. 20.

“Washington, D.C., for the first time in a long time, has cut the number of mandatory I-9 audits that are going on nationwide,” he said.

The number of I-9 audits – the federal government’s Form I-9 verifies the identity and work eligibility of an employee – has been cut down to about 1,000 per year, down from the previous number of 3,000. The audits that are performed will focus more on employers who turn a “blind eye” to certain violations, as well as employers in “critical infrastructure locations,” Howe said.

He defined “critical infrastructure locations” as “places that produce the food we eat, the water we drink, the transportation that moves our people” – places like agricultural sites, chemical plants and airports. The department is focusing on these for security reasons. If a water treatment facility, for example, hires people who are not supposed to be in the country, such poor hiring practices could be exploited by a terrorist or other group seeking to cause harm, Howe said.

The department also is looking closely at “companies that willfully turn a blind eye towards undocumented workers at their facility,” Howe said.

He gave an example of what he meant: “If you’re a company, and every spring trucks of undocumented aliens show up, and there’s one driver and there’s 15 people in the back of this pickup truck, and they present you with pink Social Security cards and yellow Green Cards, nobody speaks English – that’s a willful blind eye.

“The general person would say that’s not a taxi driver, that’s not a good Samaritan, that’s a human smuggler bringing people to your company to work,” Howe continued.

He gave another example of an employer possibly “turning a willful blind eye”: Accepting a Green Card, Social Security card or other federal document with smeared ink.

“The one thing the U.S. government does very well is it has very good ink,” Howe said. “You ever put a dollar, 10-dollar, 20-dollar bill through the wash, you’ll notice it doesn’t run. The ink on our document cards is very good. If you run into those types of cards, there’s a good chance it’s a fraudulent card.”

He mentioned a “blind eye” situation that happened in western Michigan within the last few years. The department was conducting an I-9 audit on a company that employs about 500 people. Roughly half of those employees were found to be undocumented aliens and the company had to let them go. As soon as the audit was over, many of the employees who had been released formed a contract company, approached their former employer and were re-hired. They went right back to work – alongside coworkers who knew they were undocumented.

“You can imagine how long it took for us to get phone calls,” Howe said.

Howe’s branch – there are 10 or so special agents in Grand Rapids who perform, among other tasks, worksite enforcement – gets tips about potential wrongdoing from many sources, including informants, competitors and local police.

Employers who knowingly employ undocumented workers can face criminal prosecution, he said.

Matt Milkovich

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