Poultry processors, beware! President Obama is in campaign mode for the 2012 elections, and poultry processors are at ground zero in the president’s push for immigration reform. This is resulting in heightened scrutiny of employers by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, but steps can be taken to manage the risk of potential violations.

The president’s mocking offer of a moat with alligators to secure the country’s border with Mexico entertained a supportive crowd during his policy speech on immigration reform in El Paso, Texas, on May 10. His contention was that the border is secure and that any doubts about its security are somehow ridiculous.

Processors stuck in president’s political jeopardy  

Is the border with Mexico really secure? Not according to 64% of likely voters in a Rasmussen poll conducted May 11-12. This only adds to the risk for employers in the meat and poultry processing industries. Why? Because the president’s case for immigration reform is politically weak at the border, his administration’s efforts – and public attention – will need to be shifted elsewhere. This is where employers are to have a role on the political stage. Experts in immigration compliance expect to see more executives being led away in handcuffs for criminal prosecution in 2011.

Here’s the new political calculus: The public blames U.S. businesses for employing workers who are in the U.S. illegally. The public is much more sympathetic, however, to the plight of alien workers. Therefore, raids are no longer being conducted where scores of workers are arrested and deported. Instead, the administration’s focus is on making examples of employers who have hired the workers.

New ICE enforcement methods  

Mark K. Reed, an immigration compliance expert who spoke at the U.S. Poultry & Egg Association Processor Workshop, described new approaches by ICE.

  • Form I-9 has taken on a new role. Forensic analysts at ICE examine the forms to determine if they are in order. The forms could potentially be the basis for criminal prosecution for serious violations, but even technical violations result in fines – a new-found source of revenue for ICE operations.
  • Notices of Inspection are the nexus of ICE investigations, supplanting costly, time-consuming raids. Companies that receive a Notice of Inspection have three days to prepare for a meeting with federal officials in which the company’s Form I-9 records are reviewed, possibly including payroll documentation. In the week leading up to the president’s speech in El Paso, 180 companies in five states received inspection notices from ICE. The agency is engaging more employers than ever before.
  • Return inspections are a part of the plan. “In the past, once employers were raided, they were never raided again. The problem was that unauthorized workers continued to replace unauthorized workers. Return inspections are aimed at stopping that cycle," Reed said.

Another of the government’s immigration enforcement tools, E-Verify, is unreliable. The online system, used voluntarily by some employers, wrongly clears illegal workers over half the time, due to identity fraud on the part of the workers. Nonetheless, employers are held responsible when they employ those workers cleared by the system.

Realism left out of immigration debate  

Is the government hanging too much of the responsibility for illegal immigration on business employers, while not adequately shouldering its responsibilities? Reed thinks so.

“The reason that the current dialogue about immigration reform is so dangerous is that the government is not talking about the numbers,” he said. “Think about the amount of government resources that it would take to process 10 million people for legalization, which is what they say they want to do.

“Until we get some honesty in the dialogue and start dealing with the practicality of what immigration reform means, this is all pandering and a lot of people are going to get hurt. And we are going to end up at the same place we are now next year, or 10 years from now, and it will be even worse in terms of numbers,” he predicted.

Dealing proactively with ICE  

Meantime, Reed offered the following advice to help employers mitigate the risk of fines and prosecution:

  • Sign up for E-Verify. Even though E-Verify won’t reliably identify illegal workers, it is a pillar in the administration’s case that it is ready to move forward with immigration reform. “The administration is not going to want to pick on employers that are using E-Verify for the fear that it will show E-Verify for the sham that it really is,” Reed said.
  • Establish an immigration compliance program. Document your core values, hiring policies and auditing processes. Then make sure you adhere to your program.