Immigration Audits Drive Illegal Workers Underground
As reported by The Wall Street Journal.
The journey from prosperity to the economic margins is an increasingly common path for thousands of undocumented workers pushed out of their jobs by the federal government's audits of U.S. businesses, according to immigration experts, business owners and unions. The audits, started by the Obama administration in 2009, put the onus on business to police workers, requiring companies to turn over employee records to federal agents. If the papers aren't in order, the workers are quietly let go without penalty while the companies are punished.
The audits, conducted by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), a unit of the Department of Homeland Security, were initially hailed by some immigrant advocates as more humane because they eliminate deportation raids, the norm during the Bush administration.
But it has become increasingly clear that the policy is pushing undocumented workers deeper underground, delivering them to the hands of unscrupulous employers, depressing wages and depriving federal, state and local coffers of taxes, according to unions, companies and immigrant advocates.
Indeed, the audits draw flak from both proponents and opponents of an immigration overhaul. Rep. Lamar Smith (R., Texas), a leading voice among foes of giving illegal immigrants amnesty, deems audits ineffectual because they don't result in deportation.
"This means the illegal immigrant can walk down the street to the next employer and take a job that could go to an unemployed, legal worker," said Rep. Smith, who is chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.
Many employers say the administration is depriving them of foreign workers who do jobs Americans refuse, even during an economic downturn, without proposing immigration reform that would supply a stable, legal labor force.
"All the audits do is keep employers in certain industries awake at night, while driving immigrants into work environments and arrangements that are indefensible," said Bill Blazar, a senior vice president of the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce.
This year, ICE said it has audited more than 2,300 companies who employ tens of thousands of workers from upstate New York and Alabama to Texas and Washington. The audits are an answer to calls by many members of Congress to strictly enforce current immigration laws before considering wholesale reform of the country's immigration system. Like his predecessor, President Barack Obama favors an immigration overhaul that would put illegal immigrants on the path to legalization.
The administration began targeting employers because they are the "magnet" for illegal immigration since they provide jobs that lure the undocumented workers, according to ICE chief John Morton.
ICE doesn't disclose the names of the audited companies, and it said it also doesn't keep tabs on how many workers lose their jobs. As of Aug. 6, ICE said 2,393 companies were being audited, the largest number in a single fiscal year.
It's impossible to track where workers hit by audits end up. But immigration experts say Minnesota offers a microcosm for how many immigrants respond.
Under federal law, employers are obligated to ensure their workers are eligible to work in the U.S. However, many complain that workers present fake documents and companies don't have the ability to patrol them. They also fear discrimination suits for demanding additional documents from workers they suspect are in the country illegally.
After an audit in the summer of 2009, ICE notified ABM Industries Inc. that a number of workers' I-9 documents were suspect and asked that the workers provide different documentation, such as a valid social security number and driver's license, a ABM spokesman said. By late October, 1,250 undocumented workers at ABM had been let go or left, union officials say.
ABM, which employs nearly 100,000 nationwide, paid $108,000 in civil penalties, according to ICE, which declined to elaborate. It was able to replace all the undocumented workers, the spokesman said.
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