KATE BRUMBACK, Associated Press
ATLANTA — Federal immigration authorities are beginning a new round of investigations to make sure businesses hire only people authorized to work in the U.S., focusing on companies vital to national security and other government and economic functions.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said Wednesday it is notifying 1,000 companies that it will inspect their I-9s, the forms that new employees complete, along with documents the workers provide to show they are eligible to work in the U.S.
"The inspections will touch on employers of all sizes and in every state in the nation, with an emphasis on businesses related to critical infrastructure and key resources," ICE said in a statement.
That includes sectors such as banking and finance, commercial nuclear reactors, dams, drinking water and water treatment systems, government facilities, information technology, telecommunications and transportation systems, among others.
"Ultimately, our focus on businesses related to critical infrastructure and key resources aligns with our priority as an agency to first and foremost minimize threats to national security and public safety," said ICE spokeswoman Gillian Christensen.
ICE declined to name the businesses or give their locations, but said they range in size from small businesses to national brand names. Businesses to be audited are selected based on tips or intelligence that has led the agency to believe the company may be engaging in improper hiring practices, Christensen said.
The Obama administration has made cracking down on employers a key part of its immigration enforcement policy, emphasizing employer audits more than the high-profile workplace raids done during the Bush administration.
"ICE's worksite enforcement strategy focuses on employers — penalizing those who knowingly violate the law and deterring others from breaking the law," Christensen said. "ICE may arrest workers we encounter, but arresting workers in and of itself is not a strategy or the goal of the program."
The idea behind I-9 audits is to encourage a culture of voluntary compliance, Christensen said. In much the same way that many individuals and businesses pay their taxes because they figure there's a good chance they'll be audited, ICE wants to show businesses that there are consequences for hiring people who aren't eligible to work here, she said.
This is the fifth in a series of employer investigations, dubbed "I-9 audit surges," by federal immigration authorities. The most recent previous round was in February, when 1,000 businesses were audited. This new action brings the fiscal year 2011 I-9 audit total to 2,338 audits, up from 2,196 the previous fiscal year.
After receiving a notice of inspection, a company generally has three business days to present the I-9 forms. ICE generally also requests supporting documentation, which may include a copy of the payroll, list of current employees, articles of incorporation, and business licenses.
ICE can take a variety of actions against employers when violations are found, depending on the level of seriousness. In the most serious cases, violations can result in criminal arrests of employers. In fiscal year 2010, 196 employers were arrested, up from 114 the year before.
ICE can also debar a business or individual, meaning the offending employer can be kept from bidding for federal contracts. ICE took that action against 97 businesses and 49 individuals in fiscal year 2010.