WASHINGTON -- The nation's top immigration cop unknowingly used a company that hired illegal immigrants to clean his home for about three years, starting in 2005.
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff hired the Maryland-based Consistent Cleaning Services to clean his home in the D.C. suburbs every few weeks for the past three years until an investigation conducted by one of his department's agencies discovered the company hired illegal workers.
An Immigration and Customs Enforcement investigation, which began in January, culminated in charges against the owner of the cleaning company, James Reid, who was fined $22,800 in October, according to a homeland security official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the investigation is ongoing. Nine of Reid's employees were found using fraudulent documents, and 11 did not produce the appropriate forms to verify that they were legally allowed to work in the United States, the official said.
The investigation has not proven that any of the illegal workers actually cleaned Chertoff's home, the official said. But company owner James Reid said he knows at least six of his employees that he had to fire due to their illegal status worked at one time at the Chertoffs' home.
The company had cleaned Chertoff's home every few weeks for $185 since 2005. Chertoff became aware of the situation in April, fired the company and stayed out of the investigation, the homeland security official said.
Chertoff spokesman Russ Knocke said contractors are responsible for ensuring that their employees can work in the U.S. legally. "As customers, the Chertoffs obtained assurances from Mr. Reid that any personnel he dispatched to their home were authorized to work in the United States," Knocke said in a statement Thursday.
Reid said he has all of the documentation for his employees and was always operating under the belief that their documents were legitimate. He said the fines could put him out of business, and the publicity has already cost him customers.
Reid asks how he is supposed to know the difference between a real and fake Social Security card. "I'm not a forensic specialist," he said. Reid blames Homeland Security -- specifically the Secret Service -- for the problem. He said homeland security should be doing every background check possible to make sure situations like these don't happen.
The Secret Service, which is part of the Homeland Security Department, screens all workers at the Chertoff residence. The screening includes criminal history checks, physical screening and an agent escort while on the premises, Secret Service spokesman Eric Zahren said.
"This matter illustrates the need for comprehensive immigration reform, and the importance of effective tools for companies to determine the lawful status of their work force," Knocke said.
Speaking Oct. 23 on the state of immigration, Chertoff boasted about his department's record year for worksite enforcement cases -- which led to more than 6,000 arrests.
He also said, "We need to make sure our own house is in order," referring not to his own home, but to the federal government, which now is required to use a federal online database to check whether the workers are in the country legally.
To solve the immigration problem, Chertoff has said the next administration will need to go back to Congress for comprehensive reform. When Congress failed to pass a comprehensive immigration overhaul in 2007, the administration kicked up its enforcement of the immigration laws already on the books.
Pressure to revisit immigration reform will build quickly on President-elect Barack Obama's administration and the new Congress, from Latino supporters, immigration groups and some business interests. But House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has said Democrats may have to give up some of their priorities -- such as giving illegal immigrants a path to citizenship -- to get an agreement.
Before Chertoff was nominated to be homeland security secretary, President George W. Bush selected former New York City Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik for the job. Kerik withdrew his name after acknowledging he had not paid all taxes for a family nanny-housekeeper and that the woman may have been in the country illegally.