Immigration is currently a hot-button issue, so it’s not surprising to hear that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) recently hired 500 new auditors in its quest to crack down on undocumented and unqualified workers.
Businesses who rely on undocumented workers take note: If ICE audits your business and finds you have knowingly or mistakenly hired illegal aliens, it will assess up to a $250,000 fine per undocumented worker and $1,000 per mistake on each completed I-9 form.
In my experience, I often find that employers are unaware of the stiff penalties associated with hiring undocumented workers. They believe their audit risk is low, and in many cases, it’s easier for them to staff undesirable jobs with undocumented workers than with documented ones. But the penalties and PR repercussions associated with immigration busts quickly destroy any benefits you may have received from hiring illegal aliens in the first place. Your reputation is hard to replace and so is loss of client confidence.
When ICE does come knocking, companies who rely heavily on undocumented workers find themselves facing a twofold problem. First, the potential fines can easily run into the millions of dollars. Second, the moment your undocumented workers get wind that ICE is at the door, they will leave. Suddenly, your business is missing 30, 50, or in one case, even 80 percent of its workers. You have to figure out how to backfill those positions quickly to avoid business interruption and significant revenue loss. Once you’re in that hole, it’s incredibly difficult to get out.
There are a number of steps organizations can take to minimize the risk of an ICE audit. First, do not attach photocopies of a worker’s documents to his or her I-9 form. When immigration comes in, the agent asks for the I-9s, and he or she will see the photocopies. If the photocopied documents don’t look authentic, you’re in trouble. All of a sudden those photocopies become evidence against you, and it’s now easier for the government to prove you’ve engaged in negligent hiring practices. When you are filling out an I-9, all you’re required to do is visually inspect the documents presented to you and attest that they appear to be authentic. Sign on the appropriate line and skip the photocopies.
Second, make sure you train your employees on how to spot forged documents. For example, authentic green cards and resident alien cards have holograms on them. Fake ones do not. Many fake social security cards don’t have the right number of pillars on either side, or they’re the wrong color blue. Knowing how to spot a fake can go a long way toward protecting your business.
Third, ensure that the employee who is charged with filling out the I-9s for your business is adequately trained on the proper way to complete the form. When I conduct HR assessments for my clients, I frequently see multiple errors on various I-9 forms. If ICE audits these forms, it will fine you $1,000 for every mistake — not every form with mistakes on it.
Common mistakes include using abbreviations, writing in the wrong color ink, omitting signatures, and not adhering to the rules regarding dates. Proper training and preventative measures in this area can save tens of thousands of dollars in fines.
Fourth, it’s important to obtain social security validation and verification through a reputable provider. E-Verify is the government’s verification service, but many businesses find it to be overly burdensome and time consuming. At the very minimum, find a reputable provider who will match the name, date of birth, and address to the given social security number.
Taking the time to do these four things will minimize your risk of an ICE audit. If all else fails and ICE does come knocking, call an immigration attorney or qualified and knowledgeable HR professional who can help you correct errors in your hiring process and put a plan into place for backfilling positions that may now be vacant.
Sherri Elliott-Yeary is the CEO of human resources consulting companies Optimance Workforce Strategies and Gen InsYght, as well as the author of “Ties to Tattoos: Turning Generational Differences into a Competitive Advantage.” She has more than 15 years of experience as a trusted adviser and human resources consultant to companies ranging from small start-ups to large international corporations. She is a Senior Professional in Human Resources and holds an Associate designation in Risk Management. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.