The Obama administration plans to intensify a crackdown on employers of illegal immigrants with the establishment of an audit office designed to bolster verification of company hiring records.

In an interview, John Morton, chief of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, a unit of the Department of Homeland Security, said the Employment Compliance Inspection Center would "address a need to conduct audits even of the largest employers with a very large number of employees." The office would be announced Thursday, he said.

Morton said that the center would be staffed with specialists who will pore over the I-9 employee files collected from companies targeted for audits.

In the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, 2010, ICE conducted audits of more than 2,740 companies, nearly twice as many as the previous year. The agency levied a record $7 million in civil fines on businesses that employed illegal workers.

Enforcement activity during the Bush administration focused on high-profile raids in which thousands of illegal immigrants were arrested and placed in deportation proceedings. Relatively few companies and their executives were prosecuted.

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In contrast, the Obama administration has made employers the center of its immigration policy with "silent raids." Critics say the policy has penalized small employers while failing to target larger employers.

Morton said the new center would have the "express purpose" of providing support to regional immigration offices conducting large audits. "We wouldn't be limited by the size of a company," he said.

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