WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration is launching investigations of hundreds of businesses around the country as part of its strategy to focus immigration enforcement on the employers who hire illegal workers.
But instead of cracking down with well-publicized raids featuring dozens of agents storming a suspect business or factory, the administration is sending a simple form letter identifying businesses as potentially being in violation of immigration laws.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement has begun notifying businesses of plans to audit their I-9 forms — employment eligibility documents that employers fill out for every worker — the agency told members of Congress in an e-mail Wednesday, according to the Associated Press.
Immigration officers served "Notices of Inspection" to 652 businesses, the Homeland Security Department said. By comparison, 503 such notices were issued to businesses last year, the agency said. Businesses were chosen for inspections based on leads and other investigative work, Immigration and Customs Enforcement said.
Employers are required to keep the I-9 forms and must check the authenticity of documents provided by the employee. The Homeland Security Department said it would not release the names or locations of the businesses that are being audited because of the ongoing investigations.
"ICE is committed to establishing a meaningful I-9 inspection program to promote compliance with the law," John Morton, Immigration and Customs Enforcement director, said in a statement. "This nationwide effort is a first step in ICE's longterm strategy to address and deter illegal employment."
President Barack Obama has said his administration's strategy for stemming illegal immigration would focus on employers who hire illegal workers.
The Feds are going to concentrate on businesses employing large numbers of ostensibly illegal workers. The tough criminal charges will be reserved mostly for employers who serially hire illegal immigrants and engage in wage and labor violations, The New York Times reported.
“These actions underscore our commitment to targeting employers that cultivate illegal work forces by knowingly hiring and exploiting illegal workers,” said Matt Chandler, a spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security.
Instead of criminal penalties, the new effort will makes broader use of fines and other civil sanctions. Employers found in violation could be looking at fines well up into the hundreds of thousands of dolalrs, federal officials say.
Representative Brian P. Bilbray, a California Republican who heads an immigration caucus in the House, told the Times that the amount of the fines was crucial.
“If this is a truly conscientious effort to get tough with employers to say the days are over of profiteering with illegal immigrants, that’s fine,” said Mr. Bilbray, who opposes any effort to give legal status to illegal immigrants. “But if the fine will be so low that it’s just part of doing business, there’s no deterrent.”
The Obama administration hopes this new effort might boost the chances of passing an immigration reform bill in Congress. The administration has doubted whether it has enough votes right now to pass immigration reform, the Associated Press reported. But some members of Congress emerged from a meeting with Obama last week saying immigration reform could be done by the end of the year or early next year.
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