ICE audits of Georgia businesses spike this summer

A U.S. Department of Homeland Security vehicle sits outside the Atlanta field office of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement office Saturday. Staff photo by Beau Evans.

Businesses in Georgia and across the country are receiving more scrutiny to determine if they employ undocumented workers, according to local immigration attorneys and U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement officials.

More than 100 federal audit subpoenas were sent this year through July 22 to businesses in Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Alabama, said Lindsay Williams, a spokeswoman for ICE’s Atlanta field office. They figure into a total 3,282 subpoenas issued through July to businesses across the country, she said.

Williams noted that tally has changed since late last month “due to ongoing enforcement actions,” but did not provide a number beyond that date.

Williams did not provide a Georgia-specific number for 2019 and declined to comment last week on future operations.

Local immigration attorneys, meanwhile, say they’ve noticed a spike in clients looking for help after their businesses were served audit subpoenas, both in Georgia and in the rest of the country. They have also noticed penalties growing tougher for violations.

“I’ve seen it progress from more of a paperwork review to now a full-blown investigation with more consequences and serious fines involved,” Sarah Hawk, an Atlanta-based attorney specializing in immigration business legal matters, said in a phone interview.

“The phone has not stopped ringing in the past few months,” she said.

Penalties can be stiff

Charles Kuck, an immigration attorney in Atlanta, said at a Latin American Chamber of Commerce breakfast on July 31 that he also is seeing far more businesses receive audit subpoenas recently than in years past, possibly as many as 300 subpoenas issued in the Atlanta metropolitan area alone. Kuck, a former president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, said he has noticed those subpoenas being sent mostly to Latino-owned businesses and that fines for even small mistakes on employment paperwork can “stack up.”

The increasing number of audits comes amid the Trump administration’s push to amplify enforcement of federal immigration rules, both at the U.S.-Mexico border and at worksites countrywide. Audit subpoenas nearly quadrupled in 2018 compared to the year prior, from 1,360 subpoenas to 5,278, according to an ICE news release.

Derek Benner, ICE’s acting deputy, said last year that the agency aims to conduct up to 15,000 audits a year, the Associated Press reported.

The audits, performed by ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations arm, require businesses to hand over I-9 forms and other employment-eligibility documents within three days. Those forms must cover current workers as well as employees terminated in the last three years, according to a copy of a recent subpoena  served on a Norcross business on July 18, provided by a local immigration attorney who asked not to be named.

Smaller companies see bigger impact

Penalties for violations range from a few hundred dollars to several thousand dollars per violation, depending on whether any undocumented workers were found at a business, ICE’s website says. The audits can lead to investigations and criminal prosecution for employers found repeatedly hiring undocumented workers.

ICE’s I-9 audits aim to lower the number of undocumented or otherwise unauthorized workers hired by businesses, focusing “on the criminal prosecution of employers who knowingly break the law,” according to the agency’s website. Federal laws on worksite authorization date back to 1986. ICE also has a program to train business owners on how to ensure I-9 forms are submitted correctly and on how to use the voluntary E-Verify system to file those forms electronically.

The nearly 5,300 audit subpoenas served last year resulted in 93 arrests, according to an ICE news release. Auditing I-9 forms also plays a role in worksite investigations that can lead to larger-scale arrests, such as the detention of roughly 680 workers at chicken processing plants in Mississippi last week.

Last year, ICE arrested 984 people for non-criminal administrative reasons stemming from 6,093 worksite investigations, according to an agency news release. That was up from 1,716 worksite investigations that prompted 172 administrative arrests.

Moreso than actual arrests, local immigration attorneys like Hawk say it’s the financial burden that hits businesses hardest.  Subpoenas are arriving at companies of all sizes, from mom-and-pop stores to big corporations, Hawk said. Smaller businesses are often caught off-guard because the are not aware of  I-9 protocol.

“It’s definitely more of a climate of surprise and concern for companies,” Hawk said. “They definitely feel like this is impacting their operations and bottom line.”

Hawk said she has also heard from some business owners worried about “going under” if they lose long-time employees who have gained years of technical expertise and hold temporary protected status, but do not have work-authorization forms. The loss of those workers could come on top of fines, she said.

“The smaller the company, the bigger the impact,” Hawk said.

Amy Peck, a Nebraska-based immigration attorney who sits on the American Immigration Lawyers Association’s board of directors, said by phone last week the nearly 3,300 audit subpoenas issued nationwide in recent weeks marks “an unprecedented number in one short timeframe.” Peck said she is unsure ICE will be able to meet its goal of 15,000 audits annually, but that she has heard the final tally this year could reach up to 6,000 subpoenas.

“I don’t even have words other than there’s not a lot of sleep going on,” Peck said. “If you don’t have compliance on the top of your priority list, then it’s going to impact you in a very bad way.”

Beau Evans
Beau Evans has covered local and state government and breaking news in New Orleans and California. He’s reported on immigration issues, the threat of rising seas to coastal areas, public safety and hurricanes. At The Times-Picayune in New Orleans, Evans detailed the critical role government plays to ensure that people in a community have access to clean water and other public needs. In 2018, his investigative reporting revealed top officials at New Orleans’ cash-poor water utility dealt themselves huge raises, prompting several to resign. Evans’ prior reporting was in West Marin north of San Francisco for The Point Reyes Light. Evans is an Atlanta native who graduated with honors from The Lovett School and is an honors graduate of North Carolina’s Davidson College.

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