Think your business is insulated from a government audit when it comes to immigration matters? Think again.
The U.S. government has stepped up its enforcement efforts in recent years, and all employers are at risk of failing an audit, according to immigration attorney Lee Gibbs Depret-Bixio of Ogletree Deakins. Deakins was one of the featured presenters in the recent Tricky I-9 Trends to look out for in 2015 webinar sponsored by PeopleMatter.
Since 2009, Immigration and Customs Enforcement has audited nearly 9,000 employers and levied more than $101 million in fines, according to Depret-Bixio, with an increase of more than 500 percent from 2012 to 2013.
But the real costs to employers who run afoul of ICE aren't levied in fines; the costs show up in other ways such as high employee turnover, strained customer service and damage to the brand.
The Wildflower Bread Company was audited by ICE in 2012. Though the company initially felt they had nothing to fear from an audit, said Depret-Bixio, the process revealed that a number of its employees had submitted falsified I-9 documents.
Employers must ensure proper completion of an I-9 – a document which verifies identity and employment authorization – for each hire, citizen or non-citizen. Employers are required to keep those documents on file, and be prepared to present I-9s to the government upon request.
While Wildflower had the documents on file, it had not verified the documents were legitimate through E-Verify, free program run by the US. Government that compares information from employee's I-9 to data from U.S. government records and determines employment eligibility.
As a result of the audit, Wildflower Bread Company lost 43 percent of its workforce with a combined 736 years of service, said Depret-Bixio. Though the company was only fined $800, it estimates it has lost more than $1.3 million so far as a result of discrepancies the audit revealed.
How can businesses mitigate the risk associated with an immigration enforcement audit? Depre-Bixio offered five steps:
1. Assume your business will be an ICE target. Even small businesses are being targeted, said Depre-Bixio. Half of the audits conducted in the second half of 2009 were of businesses which employ 25 people or less.
2. Train your human resources staff continually. Regulations are changing constantly, and HR folks need to be up to date on the latest.
3. Practice good record keeping and destroying. Have a reliable and organized system that keeps I-9 forms separate from personnel records. Set up reminders for important dates, and destroy records one year after termination or three years after date of hire, whichever is later.
4. Maintain a state of audit readiness. Perform periodic internal audits, and use E-Verify to be sure documents check out.
5. Don't wait until ICE is knocking at your door. Use resources provided by the United States Customs and Immigration Service to get up to speed, and look for technology resources to help streamline and validate the process. Get in touch with qualified legal counsel for review and advice.
Artwork courtesy of PeopleMatter.
/ Brenda has more than 20 years of experience as a marketing and public relations professional. She invested most of her career telling the story of entrepreneurial non-profit organizations, particularly through social media.