In a move aimed at curbing illegal hiring by Fortune 500 companies, the Obama administration announced the creation of a new sub-unit of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) that will use the companies' tax documents to purge their payrolls of unauthorized workers and illegal immigrants.
Comprised of fifteen audit specialists based in Crystal City, Virginia, the Employment Compliance Inspection Center will be overseen by John Morton, director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which is in turn a branch of DHS. The specialists will scour the I-9 tax and employment records of large companies - those employing tens and even hundreds of thousands of people - to determine if their hiring practices violate immigration law.
DHS officials told Fox News the center, which will cost taxpayers over $1 million in its first year of operations, will create greater efficiencies of scale for ICE agents. Where the old model saw 100 ICE agents auditing and raiding a single company, these officials said, now two ICE agents will be able to investigate 100 companies at a time.
At a news conference in Washington Thursday, Morton said his agency had completed some 2,200 similar audits in Fiscal Year 2010, and will exceed that figure in the current fiscal year. "That's a lot of records to verify," Morton told reporters. "Many of our regional offices or our local offices simply don't have the manpower to conduct that kind of inspection or investigation, and I don't want us to be in a position where the size of a particular company prevents the government from exercising its inspection powers."
As a demonstration of ICE's commitment to creating a "culture of compliance" among companies large and small, Morton was accompanied at the news conference by Ken Kimbro, chief human relations officer for Tyson Foods, the Arkansas-based food processing powerhouse that employs 100,000 people in the United States. The two signed an agreement committing Tyson to enrollment in the agency's IMAGE program, which stands for ICE Mutual Agreement between Government and Employers.
However not everyone was as enthusiastic about the program. In a statement to Fox News, Ali Noorani of National Immigration Reform said, "This program has proven to be a huge burden on small business owners. For ICE to hire tax auditors instead of using its limited resources to keep our nation secure, it's not a fiscally responsible decision."
Under IMAGE, companies voluntarily register with ICE to cooperate in audits of their own firms. Six Tyson executives faced criminal charges in the early part of the last decade, stemming from allegations that they conspired with undercover immigration officials to arrange deliveries of unauthorized workers. Two of the executives accepted plea deals, and one committed suicide. In March 2003, Tyson was acquitted by a federal jury of having knowingly hired illegal workers. Related civil litigation remains pending. One in every five beef, chicken, or pork products consumed in America every day is estimated to have been processed by Tyson Foods.
Kimbro said the company now takes a "zero tolerance" approach toward undocumented workers. "We had to take a look at our practices, our protocols," he told reporters as the ICE director looked on. "We have further enhanced our hiring process...the training that we have done around our hiring managers: who does the interview, who does the hiring, how the I-9s are documented and stored, and continual training that takes place."
Morton said the newly hired audit specialists will cast their investigative nets in all geographic regions of the country and across all industries, with a particular eye on power plants and critical infrastructure. "Industries that are particularly critical to the well-being of the United States we are going to pay special attention to," he said.
The director brushed aside a question about the economic impact of the Obama administration's crackdowns on illegal workers, known informally as "silent raids." Immigration lawyers and small business leaders have complained that Americans are often unwilling to take the jobs performed by illegal workers, and that the costs of recreating workforce populations decimated in the silent raids ultimately get passed on to the consumer.
"This is the law," Morton said sternly. "I'm obviously aware of the criticism that in certain industries, the margins are razor thin and that employment verification puts certain companies at a disadvantage. I just disagree with that, and the answer to that criticism is: You've got to follow the law, and we need all of the companies in that particular sector and industry to follow the law....If a company as large as Tyson Foods can get compliance right, any company in the United States can get it right."