PORTLAND, Maine — Maine companies that employ foreign workers need to be prepared for an investigation from the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Office, lawyers who advise firms on immigration law said Thursday at the annual meeting of the Maine State Bar Association.
Even companies whose workers are U.S. citizens should be prepared for greater scrutiny as use of a new I-9 form that must be filled out by all employees goes into effect Monday, lawyers Paul Greene and Anna Welch, both of Portland, told the dozen attorneys who took part in a session titled “Employers Beware: Hot Topics in Immigration Law.”
The most common mistakes in I-9 forms, Welch said, are simply oversights.
“Most often the forms aren’t signed or they aren’t certified by the employer,” she said. “Instead of filling in all the blanks about the documents the workers provide [such as Social Security cards, driver’s licenses and work visas], copies of those documents are attached to the I-9s. That’s a technical violation.”
In some ways, Welch continued, employers are being asked to act as police for ICE, the law enforcement agency within the Department of Homeland Security charged with enforcing immigration laws. Hiring personnel must scrutinize documentation provided by all workers and determine if it is valid or not.
More employers are turning to the E-Verify system to confirm that the Social Security number provided matches the name a worker gave them. The electronic system, which employers subscribe to for a fee, also can quickly determine if a foreign worker has permission to work in the U.S. in a particular industry, such as agriculture or tourism.
Companies that employ illegal aliens can face huge monetary penalties such as the $11 million fine Wal-Mart paid in 2005. Those who knowingly employ illegals also can go to jail.
The former owner of a Bangor cleaning firm, Manuel Antonio Cornego, 30, of Lewiston, was sentenced in May in U.S. District Court in Bangor to a year in federal prison for hiring and housing men and women he knew were in the country illegally. He is the only employer in the state to be charged with employing illegal workers.
ICE has not conducted the SWAT team-style raids in Maine that it has in other parts of the country, such as the mass arrests last year at a kosher meat-packing plant in Iowa, Greene said. He warned, however, that if ICE has audited a company’s I-9 forms, it should be prepared for close scrutiny, if not a raid.
So far in northern Maine, ICE agents most often have audited the I-9 forms at companies that employ a large percentage of agricultural workers at the end of a season, Welch said after the session. The following season, agents have returned to arrest men and women whose documentation was false. Most often, workers have been taken into custody at their residences rather than their workplaces.
President Obama, Greene said, is unlikely to make immediate changes to immigration policy as it relates to employment.
In the meantime, Welch advised, employers should make sure that personnel who oversee the completion of I-9 forms and verify documents are properly trained and conduct self-audits before ICE does.