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Immigration News prompts a reminder to check your I-9s

Whether you’re passionately in favor or adamantly opposed, the noise that Arizona’s immigration legislation has generated may be tolerable if it has prompted you to assure that your business’ Form I-9s are properly completed and self-audited at least annually. In fact, federal Form I-9 likely is more important than many business owners think. Improper, incomplete or missing I- 9s can get you in trouble with the feds. Required since November 1986, Form I-9 documents assure that each employee hired since that date, citizen or not, is authorized to work in the U.S. Both employer and employee must complete the form. Federal officials really do care. “Businesses need to understand that the integrity of their employment records is just as important as the integrity of their tax records or banking files,” says Chicago-based ICE spokeswoman Gail Montenegro. ICE is U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the investigative arm of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

According to ICE, I-9 audits “are one of the most powerful tools the federal government has to enforce employment and immigration laws.” The intent, according to an ICE news release that last summer announced a stepped-up audit program, is to hold employers “accountable for their hiring practices and ensure a legal work force.” But is the I-9 actually a big deal for smaller businesses? “It is a big issue for the small employer who gets a knock on the door from an ICE agent looking to see your I-9s,” answers Eileen Momblanco, partner and head of the immigration practice at Laner Muchin Dombrow Becker Levin Tominberg, Ltd. Laner Muchin is a Chicago employment law firm that includes a batch of small businesses among its clients. “There’s been a shift in enforcement,” Momblanco explains. “ICE is making certain employers are in compliance.” The enforcement step-up began last July when ICE issued a Notice of Inspection of hiring records to 652 businesses nationwide – maybe not an impressive number until you discover that the 652 NOIs in July were more than ICE issued for the entire previous fiscal year. Those 652 businesses weren’t chosen randomly, and your business isn’t likely to randomly land on an ICE list either. The which-business-do-we-audit process typically begins with “investigative leads or intelligence we might gather,” Montenegro says.

Tips may come from other law enforcement agencies or from a company’s former employee. “Do I go through a business registry? No,” says Gary Hartwig, special agent in charge of the Chicago ICE Office of Investigation. “But an anonymous phone call that a specific landscaping company or restaurant has undocumented workers (will catch ICE’s attention).” Priorities for ICE’s attention, Hartwig says, are twofold: “egregious employers that are mistreating their work force” and “a critical infrastructure nexus” – O’Hare airport, for example, where illegal people and goods might pass easily.