Immigration authorities take aim at illegal hiring practices in Georgia

Federal immigration authorities based in Atlanta audited 105 businesses for illegal hiring practices during the last fiscal year, arrested scores of workers and slapped employers with nearly $900,000 in fines, the third-highest total in the nation, an Atlanta Journal-Constitution analysis of public records shows.

There are dozens more such audits under way in Georgia, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement confirmed this month.

This enforcement is happening amid a sharp increase nationwide in such audits, fines and arrests of managers stemming from employers hiring illegal immigrants.

At the same time, the government has been arresting fewer lower-level workers during work-site investigations, public records show. Critics say that practice allows illegal immigrants — some of whom use stolen identification — to freely move on to other jobs in the United States.

But in separate speeches this week, President Barack Obama and a bipartisan group of U.S. senators said blocking the hiring of illegal immigrants is among their top priorities for overhauling the nation’s immigration system. One of the president’s proposals, for example, would significantly boost fines for employers who hire illegal workers and create new penalties for those who commit identity theft.

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Clearly, jobs are among the biggest magnets that attract illegal immigrants to the United States. The problem is acute in Georgia, where the Pew Hispanic Center estimated 325,000 illegal immigrants held jobs in 2010.

Last fiscal year, ICE’s Atlanta field office — which covers Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina — fined 41 employers a combined $861,997, the third-highest amount among the agency’s 26 field offices nationwide. The ICE office in Newark, N.J., ranked first at $2.1 million. Chicago’s was second at $1.4 million.

Asked for specifics, ICE confirmed it took action against two Atlanta-area construction contractors, fining one $357,000 and the other $255,000 for a combination of substantive and technical violations. The federal agency declined to identify the companies or discuss circumstances surrounding their cases because those cases are still pending, though an ICE spokesman said none of the businesses’ owners or managers were charged with criminal violations. The AJC has filed a Freedom of Information Act request with ICE, seeking the identities of the employers who have been audited, fined and arrested in recent fiscal years.

Brock Nicholson, the special agent in charge in Atlanta for ICE’s homeland security investigations, credited his staff.

“My guys are very good at what they do,” he said. “This is a nationwide initiative to ensure compliance and protect American businesses and make sure everyone is on an equal playing field.”

Nicholson and his staff say they especially focus on businesses related to “critical infrastructure,” national security, and health and safety. Among them are nuclear power plants, airports and military bases. They get tips from many sources, including disgruntled employees, local police and business competitors.

Nationwide last fiscal year, ICE performed 3,020 audits, assessed $12.4 million in fines and charged 240 managers with criminal violations, up from 1,444 probes, $1 million in fines and 114 arrests from fiscal year 2009.

Meanwhile, authorities have arrested fewer lower-level employees on charges involving civil immigration violations. They arrested 1,102 last fiscal year, fiscal year 2012, down from a high of 5,184 during the Bush administration in fiscal year 2008. Atlanta-based ICE officials arrested 97 employees under those same circumstances last fiscal year.

Rosemary Jenks, the director of government affairs for NumbersUSA, criticized ICE’s approach.

“There is no question that if you don’t actually apprehend the illegal worker, then you are essentially telling him, ‘Yeah, just go down the street and apply at the next place down the road,’ ” said Jenks, whose group is a nonprofit that supports lower immigration levels.

ICE officials said they have shifted their focus to employers and managers, saying they are often the ones committing more serious crimes and that prosecuting them helps deter others.

Employers who knowingly hire illegal immigrants get an unfair advantage over their competitors through reduced labor costs, said Kyle Jackson, the Georgia director for the National Federation of Independent Businesses. Such employers might pay these workers lower wages and not withhold federal taxes for them, he said.

“Our members have been very clear in supporting increased fines and penalties on employers who knowingly hire illegal immigrants,” said Jackson, whose organization represents more than 7,200 businesses in Georgia.

When ICE audits companies it focuses on their I-9 forms, documents they and their new employees must fill out to ensure the employees are eligible to work in the United States. Among other things, the document asks new employees to indicate whether they are U.S. citizens or have some legal status that allows them to work here. Employers must also sign them, certifying they have examined one or more forms of identification for their new workers, such as a U.S. passport.

Employers who knowingly hire or continue to employ illegal immigrants can face criminal prosecution and fines ranging from $375 to $16,000, with repeat offenders facing fines at the higher end. ICE can also block employers from receiving federal contracts and other government benefits. Further, uncorrected technical violations stemming from more minor I-9 errors can result in fines.

Employers can avoid such trouble by doing their own internal audits and ensuring they have complete I-9 forms on file for their employees, said Geetha Adinata, a local attorney who has represented many employers who have faced ICE audits.

“That is the very first thing I would recommend across the board,” she said, “because then you are already … correcting things that could create fines.”

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