A chain of Twin Cities Spanish-immersion day care centers saw the sudden departures this week of as many as 60 teachers and other workers — 40 percent of the staff — because of a federal immigration investigation.

The Minneapolis office of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) requested the documentation from Jardin Magico as part of a routine audit, and the school said the staff members left rather than contest the findings or submit new documentation of their employment eligibility.

In a letter to parents, the school said it would welcome the employees back if they resolve their issues with the Department of Homeland Security. But it is unclear whether the teachers will return.

"The impact of these departures will be felt in our classroom and throughout our operations," the letter said. "But we have put in place a plan to make sure that we are fully staffed and that our Jardin Magico children receive the quality of care and instruction you — and we — expect."

The day care and preschool, whose name means Magic Garden, has three locations with 160 employees and about 300 students. The schools have passionate parents who embrace the multiculturalism, Earth-friendly atmosphere and sense of diverse culture promoted by the school, where Spanish is spoken 100 percent of the time and children are fed natural and organic foods.

Owners cooperating

School spokesman Jon Austin said that the hiring practices of owners Xavier Lopez and Natalie Standridge Lopez have always been in full compliance with the law and that they will cooperate in any investigation.

Austin said employees have passed a series of background checks — including the federal verification and a state Department of Human Services (DHS) background check required for all day-care workers — and a separate check of references, education certificates and past employment conducted by the day care's owners.

"The school is very confident they know who they are hiring," Austin said.

While DHS conducts criminal background checks on day-care employees, the process examines state criminal history and maltreatment violations, not immigration status.

A review of Jardin Magico's licensing history on the DHS website shows that the company has been cited in the past for having too many children in care for the number of staff members on duty, failure to submit a background check before an employee started work and failure to demonstrate that staff members took required shaken-baby training. But records available online show no major licensing actions taken against the centers.

'A lot of heartache'

The mother of a 2-year-old who has been at one of the centers since she was 9 months old said children were in tears over the sudden absence of beloved teachers.

"Some very, very strong personal bonds existed between the affected teachers and the little children and their parents," said John Keller, director of the Minnesota Immigrant Law Center, which is advising some of the teachers. "It is obviously producing a lot of sadness, a lot of heartache."

About 150 parents crowded into three separate meetings on Monday to hear company officials' explanation of the events. They were told that the audit began in April and that the affected employees were recently given a week off with pay to secure their documentation. They have until Friday, Austin said.

Employer enforcement

ICE's Homeland Security Investigations conducts routine audits of what is known as Form I-9 documents, which all U.S. businesses must maintain. The form is used to verify the identity and employment authorization of individuals hired for employment in the United States.

There is no evidence the attention on Jardin Magico is part of any pattern targeting day cares with Spanish-speaking workers.

The use of I-9 documents as a form of enforcement has skyrocketed under the Obama administration, which has focused on workplace enforcement over singling out undocumented immigrants.

Employer audits rose from 250 in fiscal year 2007 to more than 3,000 in 2012, while fines increased from $1 million in 2009 to $13 million in 2012, according to ICE figures. More than 238 company managers were arrested in 2012, according to ICE data.

One janitorial company based in New York hired 200 undocumented immigrants. A Houston-based pallet company hired almost 1,200 undocumented workers. Seven of the company's managers were indicted on felony charges and the company settled for a record $21 million fine.

The approach is not likely to let up.

All immigration reform packages being debated in Congress include specific provisions for heightened work authorization review and enforcement.

No 'raids'

Local ICE officials said that law enforcement personnel never entered the day cares or conducted any physical law enforcement operations around any of the business locations and that there were never any "raids" of the businesses.

During the course of the investigation, one employee who had been deported previously, and was unlawfully in the United States, was arrested at another location and will face deportation.

No other employee arrests have been made.

ICE spokesman Shawn Neudauer declined to discuss specifics, but it is unlikely ICE will go after any departed employees.

As in the other cases, the company itself could face fines or prosecution if it is found to have hired illegal workers. Neudauer refused to speculate on any future investigation.

Expansion on hold

The schools, in Minneapolis' Longfellow, Kingfield and Fulton neighborhoods, remained open Tuesday. A planned expansion with new schools in Eden Prairie and Maple Grove is likely to be put on hold and staff for the new locations will fill the vacancies in the current locations, parents have been told.

DHS officials on Tuesday said they are following up with Jardin Magico to ensure that the company has appropriate staff-to-child ratios at their centers.

Staff writer Brad Schrade contributed to this report.