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A colleague of mine called me recently about an I-9 issue, and specifically about an investigation that was taking place with a client of hers. It got me thinking about immigration compliance in the age of Trump.
It seems like barely a day (certainly a week anyway) goes by when we don’t see a story where Immigration & Customs Enforcement (“ICE”) has raided a workplace somewhere and hauled away dozens, sometimes hundreds of workers, allegedly working unlawfully in the United States. No doubt there are some employers who absolutely know that they have some workers who should not be working for them. For others it comes as a seeming total surprise. Certainly when that calls comes in, it creates an uncomfortable conversation with the client (or perhaps prospective client), but ethically, our duty is clear as to how we as lawyers need to advise them. The Immigration Reform and Control Act (“IRCA”), passed in 1986, imposes penalties on employers for knowingly hiring or continuing to employ persons who are not authorized to work in the United States.
Form I-9, Employment Eligibility Verification (“I-9”), is used by employers to verify the identity and employment authorization of individuals hired for employment in the United States. All United States employers are required to ensure the proper the completion of the I-9 for each individual they hire for employment in the United States. This includes citizens and noncitizens alike. The I-9 is required to completed by both employees and employers (or authorized representatives of the employer).
The primary worksite enforcement mechanism utilized by ICE during the George W. Bush and Obama years was the I-9 audit along with the administrative fine procedure established by IRCA. ICE had historically viewed the I-9 audit as its most important administrative tool in building criminal cases against employers who knowingly (or even unwittingly) violate the law, as well as a tool for bringing employers into compliance with the law. Audits involve a comprehensive review by ICE of an employer’s I-9 forms and payroll records. Audits can result in civil penalties. Audits can also provide the groundwork for the government to commence criminal prosecution of employers who knowingly hire undocumented workers and/or commit other more serious violations.
Nowadays, it seems like ICE has abandoned the I-9 audit and administrative fine procedure under IRCA and, over the past two years, is now focusing on criminal worksite enforcement investigations. These are resulting in high-profile raids which themselves are resulting in the arrests, criminal prosecutions, and/or deportation of thousands of unauthorized workers.
This is happening to all employers, both big and small. Indeed, as I’ve written here before, this is happening in my own hometown of Saratoga Springs, New York all too frequently because of its deep ties to the horse racing industry and its large service and hospitality industry.
So what is an employer to do? Where do I begin? Bottom line? Every employer needs to establish an I-9 employment eligibility verification system. You would be surprised to learn how many employers I work with that do not have a system set up to do this. And the law has been in effect since 1986!
In setting up an I-9 compliance system, the employer needs to be careful as to the procedure it uses during the I-9 employment eligibility verification process. The procedure it uses must meet the standards set forth under IRCA both to determine employment eligibility and to assure that the employer has not engaged in unfair immigration-related employment practices.
Here are some very basic but very important ground rules. First, every employer should have a standard, written I-9 compliance policy which will be followed by all managers who have hiring authority. If you’re a small employer, then the burden may fall upon the owner. Whether big or small, a standard written policy needs to be in place. Every employer should also have one employee who is in charge of the company’s compliance program. This is particularly important when a company is big, and perhaps spread out across many offices or even states.
Next, the employer’s I-9 compliance policy should be part of, and not separate from, the employer’s overall hiring policy. Indeed, all company materials, including hiring application forms should be reviewed to make sure they are compliance with this policy. Employers also need to make sure that the managers who are in charge with implementing this policy are intimately familiar with the I-9 employment verification procedure. What’s the point of having the policy if no one knows how to properly complete or store the I-9?
Employers need to also evaluate, and periodically reevaluate, their I-9 compliance program and, importantly, conduct periodic in-house audits of their I-9 records. These audits will assist employers in determining whether changes in policies or procedures are required. And, perhaps equally as important, these audits will help employers reduce their exposure in the event of an ICE investigation.
And finally, whether it’s for setting up the compliance program, assisting with an in-house audit, or if ICE just happens to show up at your door, although this may sound self-serving, employers should consult with competent legal counsel on all of these issues. I-9 compliance issues, along with decisions on whether to hire or fire an individual for immigration-related reasons, raise very complex legal issues for which competent legal advice is required.
The sheriff in town is no longer new. And he has deputized his deputies in ways that his predecessors never did. Employers need to be extremely vigilant in terms of how they run their businesses, both big and small. While historically WE may have been able to predict those businesses or industries where these issues would be arise, no more is this the case. Everyone now seems to be fair game for ICE enforcement.
 Employer liability is not limited to just those situations in which the employer has actual knowledge that one if its employees does not have permission to work; rather, an employer may also be liable if it has constructive knowledge that an employee is unauthorized to work. For example, an employer may be found to be liable if it deliberately fails to investigate suspicious circumstances, such as when the employee has stated on the I-9 that he or she is a permanent resident but the employer is then asked to sponsor the employee for employment (either temporarily or permanently).
 These raids regularly result in the arrest of dozens and sometimes hundreds of allegedly unauthorized workers, who are then themselves detained for criminal prosecution (e.g., for document fraud or identity theft) and/or deportation. As for the employers, ICE agents will seize the employer’s record which then, as a result of an investigation, can result in, among other things, the filing of criminal charges against the companies and their individual owners and managers. Criminal complaints often include charges of harboring undocumented workers, document fraud, tax evasion, money laundering and/or knowingly hiring undocumented workers. None of this is new. It’s just way more prevalent than it used to me. Way more.
Have you seen the news recently? The Department of Homeland Security (“DHS”) and the Department of Justice (“DOJ”) announced new efforts that will result in the forcible separation of families seeking protection in the United States under established U.S. law. Not only that, the Trump Administration announced that it will increase criminal prosecutions of parents attempting to enter the United States illegally, even those seeking political asylum in the United States, in its effort to tighten immigration enforcement.
In a recent speech, Attorney General Jeff Sessions stated that going forward, the United States would have a zero tolerance policy, suggesting that anyone crossing the border unlawfully into the United States will now be prosecuted. Even those seeking asylum in the United States. I quote:
“If you’re smuggling a child, then we’re going to prosecute you, and that child will be separated from you, probably, as required by law. If you don’t want your child to be separated, then don’t bring him across the border illegally.”
It is a bit ironic that on the very day First Lady Melania Trump made a public statement about cherishing and protecting children, the Attorney General was talking about U.S. policy of separating parents from children for immigrant families seeking asylum status in the United States. That’s right, when Melania Trump said that “children deserve every opportunity to enjoy their innocence”, Attorney General Sessions declared that U.S. Customs and Border Protection (“CBP”) will arrest parents, and thereafter separate them from their children.
With then candidate Trump putting immigration front and center in the 2016 election, and now President Trump doing the same ahead of this year’s midterm elections, I suppose no one should be surprised by any of this.
Does that mean if a family presents themselves at a proper border crossing point and applies for political asylum, seeking protection from unfettered criminal violence in their home country, that they won’t be prosecuted or separated?
Individuals who arrive at the our border, without proper documentation, are often subject to fast-track deportation processes called “expedited removal” or, in some cases, “reinstatement of removal” (if they’ve been removed from the United States previously). In each instance, however, the law requires that these individuals receive a preliminary screening interview with a U.S. asylum officer if they express a fear of persecution if they were returned to their country of origin.
Over the past several years, however, federal law enforcement officials have been very vigorous in prosecuting migrants for entering the United States without permission or for reentering the country without permission after a prior deportation or removal order. Indeed, tens of thousands of individuals are subjected to criminal prosecution for these crimes every year. I understand this. We are a nation of laws.
However, the United States is a signatory to the 1951 Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, which is supposed to prevent nations from penalizing individuals requesting protection from persecution or torture in their country of origin. In 2015, the Department of Homeland Security’s own Inspector General noted that prosecuting those “who express fear of persecution or return to their home countries” may be inconsistent with and may violate U.S. treaty obligations.
According to the Office of Refugee Resettlement, a division of the Department of Health and Human Services, more than 700 children have been taken from adults claiming to be their parents since October, 2017, including more than 100 children under the age of 4. The Office of Refugee Resettlement takes custody of children who have been removed from migrant parents. The American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit in February to challenge the practice of family separation.
We need to find the proper balance of appropriately and humanely enforcing our immigration laws, protecting individuals from being returned to their home country, and preventing families from being forcibly separated while the U.S. immigration process plays itself out. Right now, all this new policy is doing is making criminals of people who are simply seeking refuge from violence in their home country, and separating already stressed families, including very young and vulnerable children. This is unacceptable.
A recent article in the WALL STREET JOURNAL referred to a March 30, 2018 email from James McHenry, the head of the Department of Justice’s Executive Office for Immigration Review (“EOIR”), to immigration judges across the country, indicating that new metrics will require immigration judges to complete three (3) cases per workday. As a lawyer, I am used to dealing with many cases every day, so at first blush, three did not seem like a lot. But in context of the immigration judicial process, it most certainly is. And the stakes are high.
According to A. Ashley Tabaddor, an immigration judge and president of the National Association of Immigration Judges union, “[t]hey are allocating, on average for a case, no more than two and a half hours,” further noting that political asylum cases often include hundreds of pages of supporting documents and evidence, not to mention countless hours of testimony and deliberation. In addition, because different judges handle different types of cases, including complex ones that take more time, it does not make a whole lot of sense to apply the same standard uniformly to all judges. Again, Judge Tabaddor: “We deal with people who are unaccompanied children, with people who have mental competency issues, with people who have serious criminal convictions, and with people who have fear of returning to their home countries in case of threat of death.”
According to Syracuse University, the immigration court backlog is currently more than 680,000 cases. EOIR’s new requirements will force some judges to adjudicate cases more quickly than they have been. The average cases completed per year by immigration judges, according to the EOIR, is less than 680. The new metric will require judges to complete 700 cases per year.
Judge Tabaddor says that “[y]ou are going to, at minimum, impact the perception of the integrity of the court.” It’s a lot worse than that.
Immigration judges are appointed by the Attorney General and are employees of the Department of Justice. Unlike their regular federal judge counterparts, who have life-tenure, immigration judges can be fired by the Attorney General. Courts certainly have established “aspirational” case completion goals in order to move overall caseloads along, but numeric quotas have never been explicitly tied to judges individual performance evaluations. This will no doubt jeopardize an immigration judge’s ability to remain independent and impartial.
“The very concept [of a quota system] is in conflict with independent decision-making authority of judges,” says Judge Tabaddor, “because it pits the judges’ personal livelihood to mere completion of cases faster through the system, rather than making decisions that are based on the fact and the law of the case as they took the oath to do.”
One could also argue that mandatory quotas will lower the quality of adjudications and perhaps even compromise due process. The Immigration and Nationality Act requires that a respondent in removal proceedings be given a “reasonable opportunity” to examine and present evidence. Most respondents in removal proceedings do not speak English as their primary language. A strict time frame for judges to complete their cases would no doubt interfere with that judge’s ability to assure that this important federal right to examine and present evidence is respected.
Related to this, Judges may now feel more pressure to deny requests for continuances. An unrepresented person making his or her first appearance before an immigration judge may need more time to find an attorney. An individual seeking political asylum may need more time to gather and develop evidence that is often very difficult to obtain from his or her home country. Reasonable continuances are often necessary to allow individuals time to develop their case.
Here’s a novel idea. What about increasing the budgets for the immigration courts? Remember the backlog number above? 680,000 cases! Immigration courts are way under-funded relative to the budgets of immigration enforcement agencies. In the government’s 2017 fiscal year, the combined budgets of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (“ICE”) and Customs and Border Protection (“CBP”) exceeded $20 billion. By comparison, EOIR’s was about $420 million.
Let’s face it. By imposing numeric quotas on immigration judges, we’re doing little more than enabling the Trump Administration’s broader agenda of streamlining removal procedures in to so it can deport massive numbers of people at the expense of due process. The immigration court system can only function if due process is respected. This can only be accomplished if the judges have enough time to carefully review each case, conduct a thorough and fair hearing, deliberate the case, and then when all this is done, issue a well-reasoned decision that is consistent with the facts and relevant law.
I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (“ICE”) has now conducted two (2) sweeps in my hometown of Saratoga Springs, New York. “If you’re in this country illegally and you committed a crime by entering this country, you should be uncomfortable,” Acting ICE Director Thomas Homan recently told the House Appropriations Committee’s Homeland Security Subcommittee. “You should look over your shoulder, and you need to be worried.” Nice, right? No, not really. Not at all. The result? According to reports, twenty six (26) men have been picked up off the streets of their (and my) community and detained, initially at the Albany County Jail and thereafter at the Buffalo Federal Detention Facility in Batavia, New York. Some of them will be placed in removal (i.e., deportation”) proceedings. Others may already be in removal proceedings. Yet others may have previously been removed and later came back to the United States, presumably unlawfully. Those individuals will have their prior removal orders reinstated and will be removed again. There may be other scenarios too. I know. Some were my clients. Some are now my clients.
Public opinion is mixed as to what happened. Some good, some not so good. Here’s my take.
These individuals are fathers, husbands, brothers, cousins, and perhaps sons too. Some and perhaps all of them played very important roles in our community. In some respects, they were the backbone of our community. That is, some, and perhaps all of them, worked for businesses that we frequent. And some, although I am sure not all, worked for those business legally (e.g., pursuant to valid Employment Authorization Documents that our government issued to them while their applications for political asylum are being adjudicated by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services). It’s ironic, isn’t it? On the one hand, our government issues these individuals Employment Authorization Documents so they can lawfully work in the United States while they wait for USCIS to adjudicate their asylum applications. On the other hand, ICE picks them up off the streets and then detains them.
And what about the employers who employ these workers, and particularly those who were lawfully working for them? Summer has officially started, and opening day of the Saratoga Race Course is now only weeks away. Employers in service-based industries, and particularly the restaurant and hospitality fields, are particularly affected. Quite candidly, these individuals work in jobs that the very vast majority of American workers do not want. (Trust me, it’s true.)
Is the Saratoga Race Course next? This is the time of year you see long lines in front of the race track. These are not fans going to see the races. That’s for next month. No, these are lines filled with hundreds of people hoping to get summer jobs at the track. Those jobs are for what I will call “front of the house” positions, like gate attendants who take your money, people who sell programs, and food and beverage providers. Of course there are many more.
The “many more” include the back stretch workers who are absolutely essential and who do all of the little things to make our track experience enjoyable. These are the trainers, exercise riders, jockeys, grooms, farriers, veterinarians, muckers, jockey agents, and all the other positions associated with horse racing. A great many of these workers are foreign workers. And although many of these workers are no doubt here lawfully, dare I say that some are not? Will ICE be on the race track’s doorstep next?
There are three issues that we’re dealing with here. On the one hand, what’s happening to the foreign workers who have been picked up? What about their families, some of whom are U.S. citizens? Each of their situations will be different. Each one may (or may not) have relief to stay in the United States long-term. Time will tell.
On the other hand, we’ve got the employers. Track season is the biggest part of their year, and right now those in the restaurant and hospitality industry are dealing with unexpected (and unwanted) labor issues.
And on the “third” hand, we’re in a very tight labor market right now. Saratoga Springs is fortunate to have very low unemployment. But with that comes issues associated with hiring enough workers to fill year-round labor needs, including the bump that employers need during track season.
The solution? How about an immigration system that works? One that is responsive to the legitimate needs of our business community. Unfortunately, our immigration system is broken, and it’s been broken for a very long time. But that doesn’t mean that federal law enforcement officials should be coming into our community and creating unnecessary fear among our friends, families and neighbors. What we need are meaningful and compassionate solutions from our “friends” in Washington, D.C. What’s the over – under that that will happen anytime soon?