ICE enlists companies to stem illegal hirings
Firms sign on for self-policing; critics wonder if it could be a trap
By SUSAN CARROLL Copyright 2008 Houston Chronicle
Sept. 9, 2008, 10:52PM
With high-profile workplace immigration raids making news across the country, many employers might not seem eager to sit face-to-face with an Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent and open up their books for scrutiny.
But Betsy Kippenhan, an executive with a Houston-based staffing firm, seemed downright excited about it, speaking fondly of the "ICE advocate" who will be helping the company, Talent Tree, verify its worker eligibility through an ICE program called "IMAGE."
"We wanted to make sure they were going to look at us and give us the stamp of approval, which is what they've done," said Kippenhan on Tuesday after formally signing up for ICE's self-policing program for employers.
But some immigration attorneys and labor advocates warned that IMAGE could be a legal trap for employers who haven't been vigilant examining workers I-9 forms, which establish eligibility to work in the U.S.
In exchange for free education and training, companies participating in IMAGE (Mutual Agreement between Government and Employers) agree to meet certain requirements, including using the federal government's Internet-based employment verification system and checking workers' Social Security numbers. Employers also must agree to an ICE audit of workers' employment paperwork and promise to self-report any violations of hiring law.
ICE spokeswoman Pat Reilly said the program started small in January 2007 with only nine members.
On Tuesday it added 26 members and 11 associate members, a category created in June to give employers two years to get their paperwork in order before submitting to an ICE audit or producing an annual report. The membership rolls range from small businesses like the Bellaire-based construction company All American Brothers, to big names in government contracting, like General Dynamics. Smithfield Foods Inc., which employs more than 57,000 people worldwide, also is an associate member.
Reilly said some employers expressed an interest in the program after "someone else in their industry was the subject of a worksite enforcement" raid.
ICE has stepped up its worksite enforcement in recent months, reporting 3,900 arrests for immigration violations and more than 1,000 criminal arrests from worksite enforcement investigations in the past 10 months. According to ICE, 116 owners, managers, supervisors or human resources employees, were facing criminal charges in connection with on-the-job raids, including harboring or knowingly hiring undocumented workers.
'A poor image'
For some companies, Reilly said, the program is "brand protection, and an insurance against 'headline risk'. You don't want your brand bandied about as somebody who doesn't comply with the law because then you lose clients' confidence."
Kathleen Walker, an El Paso attorney and executive committee member with the American Immigration Lawyers Association, said IMAGE "has a poor image" and has attracted few participants.
"I think it's a mirage," Walker said. "Employers can put themselves into a trap signing up for IMAGE."
Charles Foster, a Houston immigration attorney with Tindall & Foster, urged employers to use caution before signing up for the program, particularly if "their house is not in order."
"On the surface, there is nothing wrong with it," he said. "But there are concerns that employers should be aware of. You're effectively inviting the government to review all of your employment verification forms. That could produce significant civil and criminal liability."
'Not a trap'
Foster and Walker pointed to a raid of the Swift & Co. meatpacking plants in December 2006 in Texas as an example of what can go wrong with private partnerships with ICE. Swift had voluntarily participated in the government's electronic employment verification system for more than a decade before the raids, which resulted in more than 1,200 arrests at six meatpacking plants.
Reilly said E-Verify is a "free, easy-to-use tool," but is not a stand-alone solution to detecting undocumented workers. She said hiring practices at Swift plants showed a pattern of blatant illegal behavior.
Reilly said IMAGE is "not a trap," pledging that ICE will work with businesses that participate in the program.
"When we look at their records ... and patterns that might indicate an illegal workforce, we're not going to say, 'You have to come into compliance by tomorrow.' " Reilly said. "But what we are going to look for is if there is any illegal activity going on in their workplace, we're going to ask them to take care of that first, like stolen identities and flagrant fraudulent documents."
Hector Diaz, the president of All American Brothers Company based in Bellaire, called the program "the wave of the future." He signed up as an associate member on Tuesday, and completed his first day of IMAGE training in Arlington, Va., saying the program has become an necessity for his roughly 20-employee construction company, which works exclusively on government contracts.
"I think it's going to be a requirement for federal contract work," said Diaz, whose recent projects included work at Ellington Field and NASA. "You can't be working on a government contract and have an illegal alien."
Ruth McCurdy, vice president for corporate connections for Talent Tree, which employs 35,000 temporary associates and about 250 staff members nationwide, said one of the main goals is to reassure clients that workers placed with their companies by the staffing firm are eligible to work in the U.S.
"There are companies out there that employ illegal aliens and put them in companies, and that puts a lot of people at risk," McCurdy said. "When you are working with a third party for your workforce, you need to know you have a partner that has people who have passed the eligibility requirements."