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Audits looking for undocumented immigrants on the rise

Immigration and Customs Enforcement has reported auditing more companies than ever before to look for undocumented workers on the payroll. Though President Obama has supported a path to legal status for many immigrants, he also supports penalties for companies that purposely hire illegal immigrants.

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An AP review of audits that resulted in fines in fiscal year 2011 shows that the federal government is fining industries across the country reliant on manual labor and that historically have hired immigrants. The data provides a glimpse into the results of a process affecting thousands of companies and thousands of workers nationwide.

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Over the years, ICE has switched back-and-forth between making names of the companies fined public or not. Lately, ICE has emphasized its criminal investigations of managers, such as a Dunkin' Donuts manager in Maine sentenced to home arrest for knowingly hiring illegal immigrants or a manager of an Illinois hiring firm who got 18 months in prison.

Many employers also wonder how ICE picks the companies it probes.

"Geography is not a factor. The size of the company is not a factor. And the industry it's in is not a factor. We can audit any company anywhere of any size," Bench said. He added ICE auditors follow leads from the public, other employers, employees and do perform some random audits.

But ICE auditors hit ethnic stores, restaurants, bakeries, manufacturing companies, construction, food packaging, janitorial services, catering, dairies and farms. The aviation branch of corporate giant GE, franchises of sandwich shop Subway and a subsidiary of food product company Heinz were among some of the companies with national name recognition. GE was fined $2,000.

In fiscal year 2011, the most recent year reviewed by AP, the median fine was $11,000. The state with the most workplaces fined was Texas with 63, followed by New Jersey with 37.

The lowest fine was $90 to a Massachusetts fishing company. The highest fine was $394,944 to an employment agency in Minneapolis, according to the data released to AP through a public records request.

A Subway spokesman said the company advises franchise owners to follow the law. A Heinz spokesman declined comment.

Bench didn't have specifics on what percentage of fines come from companies having illegal immigrants on their payroll, as opposed to technical paperwork fines in recent years.

Julie Wood, a former deputy director at ICE who now runs a consulting firm, said she'd like to see the burden of proving the legality of a company's workforce go from the employer to the government. She'd like to see a type of program, such as E-Verify, be implemented with the I-9 employment form. E-Verify is a voluntary and free program for private employers that checks a workers eligibility.

"At the end of the day, the fine is the least of it," she said. "Usually the company will spend more on legal fees. But it is a huge headache for the company to lose workers."

Wood said she'd like to see the agency go after more criminal charges and focus on companies that treat worker inhumanely.

Manuel Valdes can be reached at http://twitter.com/ByManuelValdes

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