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95 million fine reaffirms that hiring illegal workers is a bad plan
By Katie Loehrke
 
For employers that weren’t sure whether Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is serious about carrying out immigration laws: $95 million is the price tag for one company whose workers weren’t authorized to work in the U.S.
 
This latest activity by ICE should have employers paying attention, as should Acting Director Thomas Homan’s October announcement that the agency will increase the time spent on Form I-9 audits by 4-5 times over the next year.
 
Referring specifically to the $95 million judgment, Homan noted that it “sends a strong, clear message to employers” that the agency will continue to work toward removing the magnet of illegal employment that draws unauthorized workers to the U.S.
 
How you get to $95 million
So how does a $95 million fine come to be? The tree-trimming company on the receiving end of this fine employed thousands of unauthorized workers. It even rehired workers that had previously been let go — after they were found to be unauthorized in previous ICE audits.
 
ICE indicated that the company’s senior management supported decentralized hiring so it could “remain willfully blind” as lower level managers carried out these illegal hiring practices. Managers regularly accepted fake documentation from workers and hired individuals they knew were not authorized to work in the U.S. The company relied on word-of-mouth referrals to perpetuate its below-board hiring practices.
 
Prosecutors indicated that the company’s practices gave it an edge in its industry. Without proper work authorization, employees were particularly motivated to keep their jobs, and were willing to be relocated as necessary or work for low wages. Such an edge allowed the company to “dominate the market,” again, according to prosecutors.
 
Company, individuals on the hook
The company, already on the receiving end of the largest monetary penalty ever levied in an immigration case, is also facing felony charges for several of its managers after ICE’s six-year investigation. Employees with I-9 responsibilities can be held personally liable for immigration-related offenses.
 
That won’t be us
The fines in this case are massive, mostly because the offenses committed are among the most heavily penalized. What’s more, the offenses were knowing and willful.
 
It’s true that fines of this size are rare. However, ICE still penalizes employers for lesser offenses. An organization that carefully completes the Form I-9 process with employees can still be assessed fines for simple paperwork errors.
 
These fines range from $216 to $2,156 per violation. Even these comparatively small numbers can add up quickly, especially since a single form could have multiple violations.
 
Tipping the scales in your favor
It should go without saying that employers must hire only those individuals who are authorized to work in the U.S., but to avoid the more common paperwork errors — and the fines that go with them — consider:
 
  1. Training managers with I-9 responsibilities. Though the form appears to be simple, there are actually hundreds of ways to get it wrong.
  2. Conducting regular Form I-9 audits to make sure training has been effective. A random spot check by someone with in-depth I-9 knowledge can even be helpful. Retrain managers as necessary per audit results.
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