MILBRIDGE, Maine — Jasper Wyman and Sons, a major blueberry producer Down East, has been fined $118,000 for immigration violations, according to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency.
But Edward Flanagan, president of Jasper Wyman and Sons, accused the federal agency on Thursday of timing its press release about the fine to “scare everybody in Maine agriculture.”
He said the release sent out to media outlets on Thursday failed to note that the violation was nearly 5 years old, that it involved paperwork errors, and that the fine was paid in November 2010.
Flanagan said the blueberry harvest, which annually uses a thousand migrant workers, is due to begin in two weeks or less. He said Wyman hires 900 seasonal workers each year, and about 500 are migrant workers.
“Without them, the crop couldn’t be brought in,” Flanagan said. “Field workers average $20 an hour and free housing, but it is incredibly hard work.”
ICE Special Agent Bruce M. Foucart, contacted at the Homeland Security Investigations office in Boston on Thursday, denied the release was timed to coincide with the blueberry harvest. Foucart said the agency’s fiscal year begins Oct. 1 and that the final order on Wyman’s violations came down Oct. 18, 2010.
He had no explanation as to why it took nine months for the fine information to be released publicly.
The release cited Wyman among 14 New England companies fined for immigration document violations.
“These settlements serve as a reminder to employers that ICE will continue to hold them accountable for hiring and maintaining a legal and compliant work force,” Foucart said.”We encourage companies to take the employment verification process seriously.”
Flanagan said his company does take the verification process very seriously and has been enrolled in ICE’s E-Verify program for more than two years. He said the fine was based solely on paperwork errors, and ICE officials agreed with him.
The bulk of the fine, Flanagan said, came from the failure of the person doing the hiring to enter the date that the migrant worker started work on the I-9 ICE form.
“The problem is that we hire these workers sometimes up to two weeks before they actually start work, and the person filling out the form had no idea when the worker would actually be working on the harvest,” Flanagan said. Rather than enter an inaccurate date, the hirer left the date blank.
“When ICE came in and did a complete and thorough audit, they did not find any indication that we willfully hired an illegal alien,” Flanagan said.
Flanagan said that he believed in the past he was partnering with ICE to determine whether all his workers were legal.
“Wyman’s has always been very cooperative and worked with us on compliance issues,” Foucart said.
“But there has been a major shift at ICE,” Flanagan said. “No longer is ICE protecting us, they are treating us like the enemy. They are the enforcer.”
Flanagan said this has set up a very strained relationship between agriculture and ICE.
“We work very hard at Wyman’s to keep fastidious records,” Flanagan said. He said that every migrant employee’s I-9 form has the proof of eligibility to work attached to it.
“ICE checks the worker’s name and Social Security number to make sure they match,” Flanagan said. “If they don’t, ICE will arrest them.”
Flanagan said that was the case two years ago when five illegal migrant workers, who had applied for work at Wyman’s, were arrested.
“That is what ICE is for — to help us verify legality,” Flanagan said. “We had always thought that ICE was the employer’s protection. To hang us for paperwork errors and then shout it to the press five years later is a real change in attitude.”