Owner Lenny Russo is meticulous about paperwork showing all new hires can work legally in his Heartland restaurant in St. Paul. He’s also unhappy he can’t bring on some workers his all-Salvadoran cleaning crew might recommend.
“We can’t always hire the best person available because that person might not be legal,” said Russo, who employs about 40 people full and part time.
Recent moves by the Obama administration are expected to allow more than 4 million parents of U.S.-born children to apply for temporary work permits this spring. While Minnesota employers like Russo welcome that development, some are anxious about how the deportation reprieves will play out for them — especially on the heels of a major increase in immigration audits since 2009.
“This is a very hot topic right now,” said immigration attorney Loan Huynh about Obama’s executive action. “Employers want to know how the changes will affect them.”
Although the White House has pegged the new initiative as an opportunity to go after some employers, experts believe businesses that play by the rules have little cause for concern. Some critics of the action — under fire now in Congress and in the courts — are decrying a recent drop in those enforcement efforts.
In Minnesota, 30,000 immigrants are estimated to qualify for programs granting three-year stays on deportation and work permits. A recent Migration Policy Institute study found two-thirds of people 16 or older in the state without legal status already have jobs. So, experts don’t expect major shifts in the labor force.
Still, employers in some sectors welcome an increase of potential employees qualified to work. Remi Stone of the Builders Association of Minnesota, which represents general contractors, says small builders have struggled to grow their ranks as the industry rebounds in a tighter labor market: “Barriers to entry into our industry are one of our biggest problems.”
Russo, the Heartland owner, says granting temporary work permits to fewer than half of the estimated immigrants without legal status doesn’t go far enough.
“I don’t know of any American kids willing to wash my dishes and scrub my pans and mop my floors,” he said. “I’m sorry, but there are none.”
Some of Huynh’s corporate clients see the new programs as a chance to bring back workers lost during Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, audits of work eligibility paperwork, she said: “We’ve gotten calls from employers saying, ‘Is there any way we can get these employees work authorization faster?”
Under the Obama administration, ICE shifted away from workplace raids and focused instead on scrutinizing immigration paperwork, with less fanfare. Nationally, audits went up 212 percent from 2008 to 2013, to 3,127, before dropping to 1,320 in the most recent fiscal year. Fines fluctuated wildly, but manager arrests and convictions were up, as well.
Dan McElroy of the Hospitality Minnesota association said audits of restaurant chains and other members “got people’s attention.”
“Most employers are doing a good job of screening hires,” said John Keller of the nonprofit Immigrant Law Center. “We also know it’s fairly easy to use passable fake documents that are difficult for employers to detect.”
Large employers such as Cargill and Hormel Foods say they continue to support comprehensive immigration reform, which would include an avenue to permanent legal status. Both companies are among 6,166 Minnesota employers that have signed up for the federal E-Verify employee screening system — an almost 50 percent increase over five years — but note the system is not foolproof in detecting identity fraud.
Back in November Bill Blazar, the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce’s interim president, said on the eve of the president’s announcement, some local companies had a key concern: As workers step forward to apply, could their employers face penalties? A White House fact sheet said that as applicants step forward, “We will also help crack down on companies who hired undocumented workers, which undermines the wages of all workers.”
Nothing to worry about
Experts say most employers have nothing to fear. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the agency that will process deportation reprieve applications, has committed not to share information with ICE, unless an applicant is a criminal or other deportation priority, or the agency has evidence of “egregious violations” by an employer.
“As long as you’ve done your verification paperwork correctly, you shouldn’t have any anxiety,” said DeAnne Hilgers, a Minneapolis attorney on the national American Immigration Lawyers Association verification and documentation committee.
Most employer fines, which exceeded $35 million last fiscal year, stem from missing or incorrectly filled-out paperwork, not the more serious charges of knowingly hiring unauthorized workers.
Roy H. Beck of Numbers USA, a national group trying to roll back Obama’s plan, says the White House statement is “poll-tested” political rhetoric. He says his group has applauded Obama’s employer audits. He notes most employers who lost a lot of workers were able to replace them without much interruption in services. But he worries the audits are on the decline.
“The employers are the people who are really enabling illegal immigration,” he said.
Some experts expect the Obama administration will target certain employers. It is looking at ways to encourage workers to cooperate in investigations against employers who systematically hire and abuse immigrants.
A spokesman for the ICE office in St. Paul said the executive action will not affect workforce enforcement.
Still, some employers could find themselves navigating tricky scenarios. Employer associations say their members have fielded requests from workers for records needed to prove they have lived in the United States at least five years. If workers explicitly tell their boss they need those records to apply for a deportation reprieve program, they can place an employer in a tight spot: Now, the company knows an employee does not have permission to work.
Eventually, employees will start presenting new work permits, and some employers might discover a longtime worker used an alias and fake personal information when first hired. In most cases, says Hilgers, employers will face no hurdles in keeping workers on. But that could be an issue for workplaces with honesty policies that call for disciplining employees who present false information. Employers also might have to decide whether to treat these employees as new hires, which can affect seniority, pension and unemployment contributions.
“A worry we have is that we’ll end up with some employees whose names literally change overnight and with a real record-keeping nightmare,” said McElroy of Hospitality Minnesota.
Some national commentators say employees will be in a stronger position to ask for better pay, unionize or seek redress for workplace grievances. Rafael Espinosa with UFCW Local 1189, which represents 11,000 grocery store and other workers, said those predictions are overblown. Before a 1980s immigrant legalization program, he said: “They said people would unionize. They would file lawsuits. That didn’t happen.”
Brian Payne with Minnesota-based Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en Lucha (Center for Workers United in Struggle), a nonprofit that assisted workers at Minnesota cleaning companies with grievances, says taking away the fear of deportation will have an effect. He said, “The main thing I’m hearing from workers is they’ll have more freedom to look for different jobs and not feel stuck in one position.”