Immigration and Customs Enforcement has more than quadrupled worksite enforcement investigations in the last year. With the increased enforcement efforts, this is a great time for U.S. businesses to reevaluate the company’s procedures to ensure that it remains in full I-9 compliance. Depending on how the business operates, keeping copies of I-9 supporting documentation may be the right answer – if it is done the right way. Otherwise, optional document retention could create more problems than are solved.
Consequences of Non-Compliance
If a company is found to be non-compliant for the Form I-9 process, consequences can vary. However, it is worth noting that violations are issued on each case of non-compliance that is found. If a business has multiple employees that are found to be non-compliant, the penalties can stack up quickly and produce devastating effects.
Criminal violations can be issued to companies with documented patterns of recruiting, hiring, or referring employees not eligible to work in the U.S. Civil violations tend to deal with hiring or continuing to hire an unauthorized alien, committing document abuse or fraud, discrimination, and more offenses.
Depending on the number of violations and the penalties that they carry, consequences could result in heavy fines, a loss of workforce, or possibly even the loss of a business license. Each of these situations can negatively impact a company’s bottom line and overall morale.
With a stronger push for immigration laws to be strictly enforced, American businesses are quickly learning the importance of being Form I-9 compliant. In the last few years, the nation has seen the number of government investigations into I-9 compliance almost quadruple. While a company may not be able to escape a government audit, it can be proactive in ensuring its I-9 compliancy.
The Form I-9 and the Importance of Compliance
The Form I-9 is a legal document that employers in the United States must have their employees complete to determine their eligibility to work in the country. The form is a one-page document that consists of three main sections:
- Section 1: Employees are responsible for accurately completing this section of the Form I-9 by their first day of employment.
- Section 2: Employers are responsible for collecting and authenticating required I-9 documents from employees to verify their eligibility for employment within three days of their start date.
- Section 3: Employers will need to complete this section in the case that an employee’s work authorization expires, their name is legally changed, or they are rehired within three years of the date listed on the Form I-9.
In order for companies to be compliant, each employee’s Form I-9 must be completely filled out and accurate, the required identification documents be acceptable, and timelines and guidelines of all three sections must be observed. While it may sound like a fairly simple process, it can be quite complex and often requires the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services’ Handbook for Employers M-274. Many companies are also choosing to enlist the help of digital I-9 compliance software as an extra layer of protection and to help streamline the process.
For employers who have a large number of employees and in multiple locations, the process of becoming I-9 compliant becomes even more difficult. One of the primary issues is storage. All forms must be stored properly and be accessible to management and the government in the case of an audit.
While there are many reasons companies need to be I-9 compliant, the primary reason is because it is the law via the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act. When a company is found not to be in compliance with Form I-9 protocol, it could be putting its entire operation at risk. It is not uncommon for companies to be issued civil or sometimes criminal penalties for these violations, all of which can result in hefty fines that can impact a company’s bottom line.
However, by understanding what it means to be I-9 compliant, why it is important, and what to expect if your company is audited by the government, you can ensure your company is adequately prepared.
What happens during an ICE worksite investigation or audit?
In the event of an ICE audit, a Notice of Inspection (NOI) is typically provided to an employer. Legally, the employer has three days to provide the agency with its I-9 forms and other forms of documentation such as a business’ Articles of Incorporation, licenses, list of current employees, and even a copy of the payroll.
After the proper forms and documentation have been presented to the government agency, the agency conducts an inspection of the I-9 forms. While it is possible for the agency to grant the company ten days to make appropriate corrections for technical or procedural violations, the company could still be fined for mistakes. These financial penalties can range from several hundred to more than a thousand dollars per violation.
Fines are commonly issued in the case of a criminal violation, which may include a company’s documented pattern of using fee-based recruiting, hiring, or referrals of employees unauthorized to work in the U.S. Unfortunately, punishment can extend beyond fines and may result in debarment by ICE, which can prevent the company from being considered for federal contracts and receiving certain government benefits.
Common Results of an I-9 Worksite Investigation
Once ICE has completed reviewing the I-9 forms and documents, it typically notifies the party that was audited in writing of the outcome. Here are several more common types of notifications and what they mean.
- Notice of Inspection (NOI) Results: A result by this name generally comes in the form of a letter to the audited party to let the representatives know that the company was found to be compliant. This document can also be referred to as a compliance letter.
- Notice of Discrepancies: This result lets an employer know that there was some difficulty determining an employee(s)’ work eligibility based on the paperwork submitted by the employer. The employer is then expected to share that notice with the employee so it can present additional documentation, if available, to establish eligibility to work.
- Notice of Suspect Documents: An audit result by this name is a step down from the previous two results. This type of notification lets the audited party know that ICE has found an employee that is unauthorized to work, and that civil and criminal penalties could ensue. That said, ICE generally gives both the employee and employer a chance to present additional documentation that proves the employee’s eligibility to work if the audited party or employee deem the finding to be an error.
- Warning Notice: This audit result can mean that some substantive verification violations were found, but may not warrant a fine due to the expectation of an employer’s future compliance.
- Notice of Technical or Procedural Failures: This notification makes an employer aware of technical violations that were found. The employer then has ten business days to correct the forms with uncorrected technical and procedural failures being subject to fines.
- Notice of Intent to Fine (NIF): This type of notification generally equals dollar signs. A notice of intent to fine can mean that an employer may be issued a fine due to violations related to substantive, uncorrected technical errors, knowingly hiring, and continuing employment of unauthorized workers.
How Digital I-9 Compliancy Software Can Help
Digital I-9 compliance software is quickly becoming the wave of the future. Companies are turning to this resource to help them stay I-9 compliant. In general, the software helps minimize human error and provides timely reminders for action items employers must complete to stay compliant.
Compliancy software provides employers and employees with a basic checklist of information needed to complete the Form I-9. This helps employees prepare ahead of time and gives employers a visual reminder of what is completed and what still needs attention.
One of the most user-friendly features of compliance software is the alerts. The program should catch blank or incomplete fields and missing signatures. Any of these things could cause a company to be found non-compliant, but the software program helps to find these inconsistencies and draw an employer’s attention to them before submitting the form. The program should also assist in tracking expired Form I-9 documents, so employers are able to work with the employee to attain updated documents before they become a compliancy issue.
Another benefit of implementing I-9 compliancy software is that it offers document archiving and centralized reporting. Less paper is required when forms and required documents are digitized, and it also helps the program track which forms need to be retained and which do not. Centralized reporting allows employers to provide requested I-9 information quickly and efficiently in the case of government audits. As an added bonus, centralized reporting can be utilized at any point by management, which can help them stay proactive about their company’s I-9 protocol.
With thorough understanding of the Form I-9, its guidelines and regulations, and possibly the assistance of digital I-9 compliancy software, employers can have more peace of mind about being proactive and keeping the company in good standing with the government.
The Form I-9 is a legal document provided by the government that must be completed by both employers and employees within the proper timelines stated on the form. The form gathers important personal information from the employee regarding work eligibility, requires employers to verify identification documents provided by the employee, and handles proper documentation for eligibility follow up and rehires. The Form I-9 cannot be utilized to perform a background check.
E-Verify is, in some cases, an optional add-on service that complements the Form I-9. The system allows enrolled employers to match employees’ Form I-9 information against records accessible by the Department of Homeland Security and the Social Security Administration. E-Verify is not to be used for a background check as it only verifies work eligibility and does not review a potential employee’s criminal history.
A company that requires its employees to have a legal work eligibility status and a background check should be Form I-9 compliant, consider utilizing E-Verify, and do a thorough background check or hire an employment screening service.
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.
ICE Investigations in 2018
US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) investigations in 2018 surged by 405% over 2017 to ensure a “culture of compliance.” The agency’s stated goals are to:
- Prevent the abuse of workers;
- Deter further illegal immigration;
- Stop criminal activity, thereby enhancing public safety;
- Eliminate threats to national security and
- Protect lawful workers and companies from unfair competitive advantage.
To these ends, ICE and Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) joined forces to produce stunning results from investigations to arrests over the previous year.
|I-9 audits initiated||1,360||5,981||440%|
As an investigative arm of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), ICE is specifically targeting two types of industries: (1) those that relate to the nation’s critical infrastructure and (2) those that have traditionally employed and have been known to exploit unauthorized workers. The agency may trigger an Employment Eligibility Verification Form (I-9) audit of any business for any reason, but some of its most visible cases of late started with tips from other DHS agencies through their unrelated investigations and from the tip form on ICE’s website. Tipsters are not required to provide their names or other identifying information so that they may choose to remain anonymous.
With the rising number of audits comes a slowdown in the process, sometimes taking a year to complete and further complicating a difficult and costly headache for HR professionals. Businesses must be aware of the current climate and take every possible step to avoid triggering an I-9 audit and the expensive sanctions that can follow.
While it can take years for the federal government to turn an audit into a conviction, several high-profile cases and trends have emerged in the last two years that should make business owners reevaluate their I-9 procedures for weaknesses. The consequences of others’ misdeeds are sobering.
- The owner of a slaughterhouse in Tennessee pleaded guilty to tax and wire fraud and employing illegal aliens. He will pay $1.4 million in restitution before his sentencing which may include prison time and fines. 104 alien employees were arrested on immigration violations.
- HSI arrested 17 people for a criminal conspiracy to exploit illegal laborers, fraud and money laundering and is investigating violations at agricultural businesses in Nebraska, Minnesota and Nevada.
- A Texas trailer manufacturer is under criminal investigation for hiring 160 people using identities stolen from US citizens.
- In FY2018, businesses were ordered to pay over $20.4 million in civil and criminal penalties. One Texas business forfeited over $5.5 million, and an Oklahoma business paid more than $1 million.
- FY2017 saw the largest financial penalty ever issued in an immigration case. Asplundh Tree Experts of Pennsylvania was ordered to forfeit $80 million and to pay an additional $15 million to settle civil claims for willful blindness to lower level practices of hiring and rehiring illegal aliens.
While the numbers of indictments and convictions remained relatively steady over the last year due to the time it takes to complete the process, the message is clear to HR professionals—make sure I-9 procedures are rock solid. ICE recommends that companies conduct self-audits to identify and correct issues before they become problems.
Last year, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) quadrupled the number of worksite investigations, a sobering reminder of why I-9 compliance is vital to every employer. These investigations led to a 440% increase in audits, a 560% increase in criminal arrests and an 887% increase in administrative arrests. In the last two years, businesses have been ordered to pay more than $127.8 million in criminal and civil penalties for violations of related laws. Any business owner who has not shored up his I-9 procedures in light of the surge could be making a very costly mistake.
The Purpose of I-9
The Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 requires employers to check the identity of all employees and to verify their authorization to work in the U.S. Businesses document these efforts via the Employment Eligibility Verification Form (I-9), maintained for each employee whether a citizen or not. The employee attests to his work eligibility, and the employer attests to verifying that the produced identification documentation appears to be genuine. The two-page form carries 15 pages of instructions, an indication of the serious legal ramifications to both employer and employee for mistakes and outright lies.
ICE may audit any business at any time, for any reason. While ICE has recently been specifically targeting (1) businesses that relate to critical infrastructure and (2) industries that have historically been known to exploit its workers, the agency may initiate an audit signaled by an unrelated investigation by another arm of the Department of Homeland Security or simply by anonymous tip.
An I-9 Compliance Audit
Through each step of the audit process, the business will receive written notice from ICE. It begins with a Notice of Inspection, informing the business that it has three days to produce its I-9 forms and any requested supporting documentation. If auditors discover violations, the employer then has ten business days to correct them or risk financial penalties. Should ICE determine that the business knowingly hired unauthorized workers, the business may be subject to fines, criminal prosecution and debarment from doing business with the federal government. Settlement may be reached with ICE along the way, but if the business continues to challenge the rulings, the case may proceed through a series of administrative hearings.
Determination of Fines
In January 2018, the Department of Justice increased I-9 fines for inflation. They are calculated from the date of the I-9 inspection and are determined by the violation(s)’ placements on the following ICE tables.
The Knowingly Hire/Continuing to Employ table represents the number of violations for employees fitting this description divided by the number of employees that required an I-9. Each ten-percentage point range increases the fine as does whether the employer is a first-, second- or third- (or more) time violator. The minimum fine for a first-time violator with a score of less than 10% is $548, while the maximum on the table is $19,242.
The Substantive and Uncorrected Technical Violations table divides the number of violations by the number of employees requiring an I-9, and also considers whether this is a first, second or third (or more) offense. The minimum fine is $220 while the maximum is $2,191.
The Enhancement Matrix considers five factors unique to the business. Each of these factors can increase or decrease the table percentages by at most five percent.
- Its size;
- Whether it acted in good faith;
- The seriousness of the offense(s);
- Whether unauthorized workers were involved; and
- Its history of compliance.
Avoiding a Costly Mess
With all of this, ICE is seeking to ensure a “culture of compliance” that will enhance public safety and national security and protect law-abiding companies from unfair competitive advantage. The best way for businesses to live comfortably within this culture of compliance is to, well, comply. The I-9 is a legal document. Both employer and employee attest to what they write as though it were testimony in a court of law, and it is a crime in itself simply to lie on any part of it. The HR professionals coaching employees through the I-9 should fully grasp this for themselves and make certain that the new employees understand that their signatures subject them to perjury charges for everything they have written. If all parties to the I-9 are acting in informed good faith, they are being good citizens of the culture of compliance.
Companies are responsible for the competence and good faith of their lower level HR professionals. It can be difficult for business owners and upper management to oversee the actions of everyone administering the I-9, especially when the forms are being filled out in other locations. ICE recommends that companies conduct self-audits to identify and correct issues before they become problems, and it offers guidelines to do so on its website. Just remember that the Immigration and Nationality Act prohibits discriminatory or retaliatory audits.
Lookout’s Development Efforts Already Underway
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) announced the newly revised Form I-9 is now approved for use. The announcement includes an implementation grace period through May 7, 2013 to allow employers to revise their internal processes to incorporate the use of the new form. The new Form I-9 has extended Section 1 to request additional information from the new hire. The additional information requested includes, telephone, email, and foreign passport information, where applicable. In addition, the Form I-9 itself now consists of 2 pages. The Federal Register Notice (78 FR 15030) indicates that the new Form I-9 may be obtained by visiting the I-9 Central website, www.uscis.gov/I-9Central. USCIS has also released a new corresponding Handbook for Employers (Form M-274) as of March 8, 2013.
Lookout’s development efforts are well underway. Lookout Services’ development team began programming these changes late last year with the expectation that the revised Form I-9 would eventually receive approval. However, initial review indicates that USCIS has made additional changes to the revised Form I-9 since the draft Form I-9 was issued in October of 2012. Our business and development team will be reviewing these changes and planning for their inclusion in our development efforts. However, Lookout is committed to publishing the new Form I-9 before the grace period ends. Lookout will continue to provide updates as the final development effort progresses.