Immigration officials executed the largest workplace raid in more than a decade on a north Texas electronics repair business in early April, resulting in criminal charges against CVE Technology Group and more than 280 employees. The operation in Allen, Texas is the latest headline-grabbing component of immigration enforcement and is yet another signal to businesses to either align with the federal government’s culture of full I-9 compliance or suffer the consequences. In this case, the consequences may include jail time and fines for company officials and deportation for its undocumented workers.
In FY 2018, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) more than quadrupled the number of worksite investigations over the previous year and received budget increases to ramp up its efforts even further this year. With every move, ICE has made it clear that it will no longer tolerate even good faith mistakes in Employment Eligibility Verification form (I-9) procedures. To that end, the agency has been hiring thousands of new agents and staff who have the authority and willingness to audit any business for any reason.
The agency’s stated goal is to eliminate unfair competitive advantage, but this piece of the puzzle also serves the bigger immigration picture—if illegal immigrants cannot work in the United States, it is reasoned, they will not come. The Pew Research Center estimates that eight million of the eleven million illegal immigrants currently living in this country participate in the workforce. Whether the reality of the numbers will line up with the theory, five percent of workers today are thought to be undocumented, which gives ICE plenty to do.
The Dallas unit of Homeland Security Investigations, the investigative arm of ICE, had received “many tips” that CVE Technology Group which repairs and refurbishes cell phones and other electronics was knowingly hiring undocumented workers presenting fraudulent documents. While it was the company that was the target of the criminal investigation, the agency could not “turn a blind eye” to the almost 300 workers caught up in the sweep ultimately resulting from the audit.
The operation involved more than 200 law enforcement officers. When agents arrived at the business, they put green wristbands on employees deemed to be authorized to work in the US and yellow wristbands on the others. Buses were brought in to transport the employees wearing yellow wristbands—mostly women from Latin American countries—to holding facilities. Throughout the day, frantic family members and friends arrived at the site seeking information on their loved ones, and local immigration lawyers were inundated with pleas for help. By the next day, many workers had been released on humanitarian grounds (such as being a child’s sole caregiver) with orders to appear in court, but 110 remained in custody.
The CEO of the CVE Technology Group claims that the company has always complied with the immigration and employment laws making up I-9 compliance, but the ICE audit of the company’s I-9s reportedly revealed “numerous hiring irregularities” that brought the matter to the level of a criminal investigation. One of the main criteria in such a distinction is whether the company knew that its employees were ineligible to work in the United States. The task of judging the validity of identification documentation is left to an employer, and the legal standard is whether the papers reasonably appear to be valid. Another important factor is whether there is a pattern or practice of violations—which is the biggest evil in I-9 law.
Since the Allen raid was executed on a criminal warrant, ICE must have believed the company knew or had reason to know that documents were fraudulent and that there was a suspect pattern to its verification or acceptance of the presented documents. The company and its officers are looking at years of legal wrangling and attorneys’ fees to sort it all out. If ICE can prove its case, civil and criminal penalties and fines could reach into the millions of dollars, and jail time is a real possibility.
While the undocumented workers themselves are not technically considered to be the target of such investigations, they certainly feel the pain of them. Signatures on their I-9s subject them to perjury charges for lying on the forms, and they may also be liable for presenting fraudulent documents. The government has demonstrated its determination to fully enforce immigration laws in any situation, so simple deportation is probably the best-case scenario for the workers. Organizations that help immigrants are working to alleviate this latest panic that has rippled across the country.
Almost every day brings news of further steps being taken to counter illegal immigration through every facet of the body of immigration law. Loopholes are being closed, and scrutiny is being heightened. The message is clear, and employers should heed it—I-9 compliance is the law, and a culture of compliance is mandatory. Businesses must identify weaknesses in their procedures and make every appropriate effort to strengthen and live by them. Failing to do so is a tangible risk to the company’s future.