Raleigh, N.C. — U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's latest estimate on the number of illegal immigrants in the country is anywhere from 12 million to 20 million, with a suspected 350,000 in North Carolina.
The Bush administration tried to reduce that number by trying to stop the flow of illegal immigrants into the country. Earlier this year, the Department of Homeland Security announced a new strategy under the Obama administration that now also goes after an illegal immigrant's employer and its managers.
"Under the Bush administration, it was more of a big-bang worksite raid, arrest illegal aliens, hit the news," said Bernhard Mueller, a labor and employment attorney with the Ogletree Deakins law firm in Raleigh.
Worksite raids across the country led to thousands of illegal immigrants being detained in recent years. In August 2007, for example, ICE agents raided a meat packing plant in Bladen County and charged 28 people with identity theft for assuming identities of real U.S. citizens to falsify citizenship and seek employment. Last year, six people were detained after a raid on a Raleigh restaurant.
Mueller says the new strategy is a wake-up call to employers.
"It's not a pretty picture for them. They ought to be concerned," he said.
ICE has launched a new initiative to audit hiring records and I-9s -- the form every new hire fills out to verify identity and employment eligibility – of current and past employees.
Last year, 503 companies nationwide received inspection notices. This year, Homeland Security notified 652 companies in one day.
"It is one of those things causing indigestion among the employment community," said George Ports with Capital Associated Industries Inc., an employer association in North Carolina with approximately 1,000 members.
This week, it offered a seminar to address I-9 compliance because of the Homeland Security audits.
"It's a concern of employers, especially if they have a high percentage of Latinos," Ports said.
Immigration officials have said they are looking for companies that knowingly hired illegal workers. But Mueller says, that's not necessarily the case.
"The government is trying to show – wrongfully, I believe, or rightfully in some cases – that the company, in fact, knows or should have known, and that's a dangerous standard (that it) should have known."
He says industries known to hire low-skill, low-pay labor, such as the housing industry, are among those being targeted.
Lisa Martin, who represents the North Carolina Homebuilders Association, says she hopes the process is systematic and fair.
"We support the enforcement of immigration laws," Martin said. "They need to be targeting people that are willingly evading the law or are just not in compliance, knowingly."
As jobs have dried up during the recession, thousands of Latinos in North Carolina have returned to their home countries.
Homeland Security believes that, by stopping companies from hiring illegal workers, it gets to the root of the immigration problem.
Tony Asion, director of the statewide advocacy group El Pueblo, says he's already hearing of unintended consequences.
"What (companies) do is deny the job (to a Latino), and it could very well be to a legal U.S.-born Latino who is here," he said.
Having represented many clients who were recently audited, Mueller offers this advice: "Get your house in order. Conduct internal reviews of all your I-9 forms."
He adds that if an employer did not know someone was illegal, but ignored the warning signs, the penalty could be jail time and a fine.
Audits that turn up I-9 forms that are not completely or accurately filled out could cost employers up to $1,100 per form.