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Federal Government Targets Employers of Illegal Immigrants

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is expanding its efforts to target employers of illegal aliens, which could have negative consequences for farmers and their workers.

On April 20, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and Julie Myers, assistant secretary for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), unveiled a comprehensive enforcement strategy to reduce illegal immigration. They also announced the results of an enforcement operation against Houston-based IFCO Systems North America, the country’s largest pallet services company.

Seven current and former IFCO managers were arrested and charged with conspiring to transport, harbor and encourage illegal aliens to reside in the United States for commercial advantage and private financial gain. The charges carry a penalty of up to 10 years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000 for each alien involved. Two other IFCO employees were arrested on criminal charges relating to fraudulent documents, according to DHS.

In addition to the arrests, ICE agents apprehended 1,187 illegal aliens working at more than 40 IFCO locations in 26 states, according to the department.

The new enforcement strategy is part of a multi-year plan to secure America’s borders and reduce illegal immigration. The primary objectives are to reverse the tolerance of illegal employment and illegal immigration in the United States. According to DHS, the strategy sets out three primary goals that will be pursued simultaneously:

•To identify and remove criminal aliens, immigration fugitives and other immigration violators.
•To build strong worksite enforcement and compliance programs to deter illegal employment.
•To uproot the criminal infrastructures at home and abroad that support illegal immigration, including human smuggling/trafficking organizations and document/benefit fraud organizations.

“This strategy lays down a detailed roadmap for ICE and Homeland Security to pursue in addressing the massive illegal alien problem in this country,” Myers said.

The department’s actions set off a panic in New York state, where some farmers kept their workers off the fields in late April after hearing rumors that ICE agents would apprehend them. The rumors were greatly exaggerated but showed the fear employers have of losing their workers during crop season, said Julie Suarez, deputy director for public policy at the New York Farm Bureau.

“We don’t really know that it’s a crackdown – yet,” she said. “People shouldn’t panic, but they should make sure all their paperwork is in order.”

Suarez wrote advice on the organization’s Web site, http://www.nyfb.org layin,g out the things employers need to do to stay compliant with labor laws. The advice is applicable to farmers throughout the country, not just in New York. Other agricultural organizations have been giving the same advice to their members, she said.

Suarez focused on the proper way to handle employee I-9 forms and Social Security “No Match” letters – sent to employers by the Social Security Administration when 10 percent of the employer’s W-2 forms contain inaccuracies in either the Social Security number or the name associated with the number.

In 2005, more than 53 percent of the Social Security numbers contained on IFCO’s payroll of about 5,800 workers were inaccurate. The Social Security Administration sent at least 13 written notifications to IFCO headquarters about discrepancies on its payroll records in 2004 and 2005, according to DHS.

However, Suarez wrote, the administration’s own guidance to employers indicates that receipt of the “No Match” letters is not legitimate grounds to terminate an employee and is not meant to be a comment by the government on that employee’s immigration status. The discrepancy leaves employers in a confusing and troublesome situation: they must accept documents that appear to be valid or face possible discrimination charges.

The confusion underlines the need for Congress to pass sensible immigration reform, something that will give workers in the country year round a path to citizenship and employers a legitimate guest worker program, Suarez said.

On May 1, thousands of immigrants and advocates took to the streets all over the country to demand the same things. The issue remains a stalemate in Congress, however, despite a recent attempt at a compromise.

Originally posted Saturday, Apr. 7, 2007

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