Cracking down harder on illegal immigrants

Critics say immigration audits have no real effect.

An undocumented worker using the pseudnym Martha, who lost her job with Harvard Maintenance last week, in her Minneapolis apartment Thursday afternoon. She's with her two children, Ana and Jesus.

Photo: Jeff Wheeler, Star Tribune

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Nobody has been fired from ROC Commercial Cleaning in Oakdale -- at least not yet. Since they got word that federal immigration officials are poring over the company's employment records, some janitors have simply quit.

Co-owner Peter Mogren said he has no idea how many of his 129 workers might walk away or be fired. One employee said nearly the entire workforce will go.

Mogren is angry and bewildered. "This is new territory for me," he said.

His company is one of at least nine businesses across the Twin Cities undergoing a so-called immigration audit, part of the Obama administration's national crackdown on employers using undocumented workers. At least 2,000 people in the Twin Cities have lost their jobs in the last 18 months as a result of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) finding that they couldn't prove their eligibility to work in the United States.

The results of ICE's audits offer a warning to businesses, especially those using low-skill workers:

The number of audits jumped more than 50 percent last year to about 2,200 from 1,444 in 2009.

The average fine under Obama ($21,851) has increased about 30 percent compared with the Bush era ($16,666).

Criminal arrests of employers have jumped 45 percent since 2008. Of the 196 employers arrested last year, 42 have been sent to prison so far, with sentences ranging from time served to 3 1/2 years. Many cases are pending.

Most recently in the Twin Cities, Harvard Maintenance Inc., a New York company with operations in Minnesota, began dismissing its janitors. The company will be forced to dismiss about 240 cleaners, more than half its local workforce, following an I-9 audit of its Twin Cities offices, the union representing the workers said last week. Harvard Maintenance has declined to discuss the matter.

Employers are frustrated

The surge in workplace inspections is a growing source of frustration for employers, said Bill Blazar, senior vice president of the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce.

"Either way, it creates heartache for the employees, heartache for the employer, and it doesn't do communities or the economies any good either," Blazar said. "I think this is evidence for further need of comprehensive immigration reform."

A local union is calling the firings an attack on the immigrant community. The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 26 in St. Paul, which represents about 5,000 local janitors and maintenance staff, is holding a vigil Sunday at Incarnation Church in south Minneapolis.

At issue are ICE's I-9 audits, named after the employment form used to verify an employee's work eligibility. The audits are a centerpiece of Obama's new strategy to hold employers accountable, as the administration shifts from arresting undocumented workers in worksite raids to targeting employers and illegal workers through employment records.

Fired, but still in the U.S.

Employees fired after such audits typically aren't deported, as they were previously.

So far, the get-tough line hasn't impressed critics. They claim the arrests and fines are too weak given the estimated 8 million undocumented workers nationwide.

In one of the largest Twin Cities firings, about 1,200 janitors were let go from a unit of New York-based ABM Industries Inc. in 2009. ABM, with profits of $64 million, was ultimately fined about $108,000, roughly $90 per fired worker. The SEIU called it "a joke."

More than 300 businesses, large and small, have been audited and fined for violations since 2003, according to enforcement data that ICE gave the Star Tribune. Most of the businesses employ workers for physical work -- landscapers, dairy operations, roofers and restaurants, among others.

No employers in Minnesota have ever been arrested for criminal violations, according to ICE, and only four have been fined since 2003, including ABM. Chipotle Mexican Grill, the burrito chain that fired 450 ineligible workers from its Minnesota workforce starting last December, isn't on the list. ICE is still investigating the Denver-based company in Virginia and Washington, D.C.

Koch Foods, one of the country's largest chicken producers with nearly $2 billion in annual sales, received the highest fine. ICE ultimately penalized the Ohio company $536,046 last year, following a 2007 raid that saw the arrests of about 160 undocumented workers.

ICE won't discuss specific employer fines. Regarding ABM's $108,000 fine, for instance, Shawn Neudauer, a spokesman for ICE's Bloomington office, would say only that the fine was "a mutually acceptable agreement between ICE and ABM, which the parties have agreed to keep confidential."

ABM declined to discuss the matter.

John Keller, executive director of the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota, a St. Paul nonprofit, said ABM's fine seems "insignificant" compared with the heavy impact on its former employees. The fines simply don't provide enough of a deterrent while costing communities lost wages and wrecked families, he said.

The fines are usually the product of intense negotiations, said DeAnne Hilgers, an immigration attorney at Lindquist & Vennum in Minneapolis. Companies negotiate aggressively with federal officials to reduce punishments, she said.

"The initial fine is not the final word," Hilgers said.

Fines are 'powerful tool'

An ICE enforcement official in Washington who spoke on the condition of anonymity said the fines are a "powerful tool" for compliance. The goal isn't a huge fine, he said, it's compliance.

"These companies are very concerned about the dollar amounts," he added.

ICE typically fines first-time violators $375 to $3,200 for each undocumented worker knowingly hired, and fines first-timers between $110 and $1,100 per I-9 form that doesn't pass muster.

The range of fines is a matter of federal law, although ICE generally has discretion in meting them out. Last year, officials ended up handing out warning notices instead of fines in about 17 percent of the 2,196 audits, the ICE official said.

To Keller, fines don't get at the crux of the issue. Workers came here because employers have work, he said, and there's no legal channel for them to enter through.

"We still, at the end of the day, are not solving the problem," he said.

Fixing the real problem

Immigration groups differ mightily on what would be the best enforcement strategy.

The Federation for American Immigration Reform, a right-leaning group that favors limiting immigration, calls the fines "pocket change" and the arrest record unremarkable given the number of audits and the scope of the problem.

Penalties are paltry by design, said spokesman Ira Mehlman, who called the employer crackdown a "P.R. campaign" to make it look like the administration is serious about immigration laws. The fines need to be increased so they hurt companies, he said, and workers need to be deported.

Other groups argue that increased enforcement won't work because, absent broader reforms, I-9 checks just tinker with a broken system.

Marshall Fitz, director of immigration policy at the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank in Washington, D.C., agrees the ICE enforcement isn't working. The only way to fix the problem, he said, is to register undocumented workers so they can work here legally.

"Anything short of that is going to be ineffective," Fitz said.

Keller and the SEIU say current enforcement may be less harsh than when workers were deported, but it still takes a huge toll. Workers who lose their jobs are pushed to more unscrupulous employers who pay completely under the table, said Javier Morillo, SEIU Local 26's president.

Pushing workers aside

"What is being accomplished through these'' actions? "All we're doing is pushing people into a black market," Morillo said.

One of those workers is Marta.

Marta (not her real name) said she is an undocumented worker from Mexico who just lost her job at Harvard Maintenance, where she said she worked from 5:30 p.m. to 1:30 a.m. cleaning offices in downtown Minneapolis for about $13 an hour. It was a good job that she held for more than three years, she said. The $900 paycheck every two weeks fed her family and made a home in their worn south Minneapolis apartment.

The single mother of two said most of the 240 Harvard Maintenance workers expected to lose their jobs are women. She worries about the future but tries to stay positive. She needs to find another job for her children's sake.

"We have to put the dreams and planning aside," she said.

In Oakdale at ROC Commercial Cleaning, Mogren, too, worries as the company's ICE audit continues. His staff earns $9 to $10 an hour cleaning large commercial buildings across the Twin Cities. He has contracts to fulfill.

"I've had families who have worked for me for 12 years without missing one freakin' day, and it would break my heart if I had to let them go," he said.

Jennifer Bjorhus • 612-673-4683

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