July 24, 2011

Immigration Enforcement Questioned

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Since January 2005, only two Oklahoma businesses have been cited or sanctioned by the federal immigration service for violating immigration laws, according to a Freedom of Information Act request filed by the Tulsa World.

An Oklahoma City Chinese restaurant and a Minco metal fabricator were cited and fined a total of about $5,400, according to a July 11 letter from the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

“Clearly the Obama Administration isn’t taking immigration enforcement seriously,” said First District Rep. John Sullivan, R-Okla. “Over the past seven years ICE, has only conducted a handful of worksite investigations and cited two businesses for immigration violations across Oklahoma—that’s a pretty clear indication they have no intention of enforcing the law or cracking down on illegal hiring.”

Sullivan said he helped bring the 287g program to the Tulsa Jail, which houses and transports illegal immigrants for the federal government, and two ICE offices to the area.

“With these additions, Tulsa is one of the most well equipped cities in the nation to deal with criminal illegal immigration,” Sullivan said.

Since 2005, Oklahoma deportations skyrocketed by 324 percent and voluntary deportations jumped by 53 percent, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC), a non-profit organization that analyzes federal data.

Nationally, prosecutions by the U.S. Justice Department from immigration service referrals have increased by 115 percent since 2006, with “re-entry of a deported alien” as the top-ranked leading charge, according to TRAC. Criminal immigration prosecutions hit an all-time high nationally in 2009.

Worksite enforcement of immigration laws is the responsibility of ICE, a division of the U.S. Homeland Security department. The agency can assess fines on employers violating the law or make referrals to the U.S. Justice Department for criminal prosecution.

The Tulsa World request filed May 13 with ICE asked for all Oklahoma employers and businesses cited or otherwise sanctioned in the last seven years for violating the federal immigration law. The agency responded in a July 11 letter, listing two business names and the dates and amounts of fines.

Oklahoma City attorney Doug Stump, vice president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, doubts the accuracy of the agency’s FOIA response.

“I don’t think that response is accurate because I’ve seen other activity,” Stump said. “If that number was true, it would be extraordinarily low. But I don’t believe the FOIA request was fully responsive.”

Several past cases of arrests at businesses covered by news media were not included in the response.

One high-profile case was in August 2006 when federal agents closed the Billy Cook’s Harness and Saddle after a raid found 51 employees who were undocumented workers.

Cook, then 77, pleaded guilty in federal court to providing false Social Security information for his employees and received three years probation and a $51,000 fine. In a separate court case, he and his shop foreman were ordered to pay $6,000 each and received two years probation for misdemeanor convictions on employing illegal immigrants and conspiracy to employ illegal immigrants.

Rep. Randy Terrill, R-Moore, considered the architect for Oklahoma’s laws pushing for state and local enforcement of federal immigration laws, said the response to the World’s FOIA request back his position.

“I find it shocking,” said Terrill. “This is beyond disappointment. It shows what a total and complete failure the federal government has been on cracking down on illegal immigration. It just demonstrates why states have to step up and do this.”

Immigration service spokesman Carl Rusnok did not provide comment about the findings or workplace enforcement.

‘Had no choice’

One day last year at the A & J Fabricators in Minco, two immigration agents showed up and asked to look at an array of documents for its employees, said owner Anala Mitchell.

The Grady County metal fabricator has been operating for more than 30 years and hired people after getting background information including a federal I-9 form, which is used by employers to verify an applicant’s identity and legal status.

“The agents were super nice, polite, very helpful, explained what we needed to do at each step and never treated me like I was doing something bad,” Mitchell said. “The fact I had all the documentation helped.”

After taking copies of employment records, agents came back a few weeks later showing that eight of the 20 employees did not have legal documents. She was told to fire them immediately.

“I had no choice and told them I was sorry to do this,” Mitchell said. “Some had been working here awhile. It’s a small town, they are good guys and never caused any trouble.”

The immigrants were not arrested. Within a week, nearly all had gone to work for other companies in the same field.

“Some are still living here and working for other companies,” Mitchell said. “My question is, if these guys are not legal, where has all the tax money I’ve been paying on them going? Nobody at Social Security or anyone contacted me about the workers not having good numbers. The whole thing is kind of ridiculous.”

After some months of negotiation, the immigration service fined the business $1,672 on Jan. 3 for having clerical errors on some federal forms, such as putting information in the wrong column.

Mitchell now uses E-Verify, an Internet-based program comparing I-9 form information to databases kept by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the Social Security Administration.

“I didn’t know about E-Verify before,” Mitchell said. “I was told it was a random thing. But I don’t understand why some companies out there with 40 or 50 workers aren’t going through this. It seems funny to pick on a little company but won’t bother a big company. Maybe working those will cause too much trouble.”

Lin’s Grand Buffet in Oklahoma City received its final order from the federal government in February 2010 with a fine of $3,696, records show.

Oklahoma County assessor records show the property is owned by the Oklahoma Enterprise Inc., Lin Jennifer Etal and Chen Guo Bin. The Secretary of State lists Jennifer Lin as the incorporating officer of Oklahoma Enterprise.

The owners are out of the country and could not be reached for comment.

‘SMART ENFORCEMENT’

Audits of business I-9 employment eligibility forms have been stepped up by the immigration service in recent months.

The National Federation of Independent Business notified its members in June that at least 1,000 businesses nationwide had received notices for a review.

The audits check the forms to make sure employers are hiring people authorized to work in the U.S.

Stump said employers should seek counsel experienced in immigration law if audited.

“I’ve seen a significant number of clients who have received requests of audits,” Stump said. “You’ll find more and more than employers are compliant, contrary to what the talk-show hosts are saying about employers violating immigration laws. Employers have learned to comply with the I-9 requirement.”

Fines for knowingly hiring an undocumented worker range from $375 to $16,000 per violation, with repeat offenders receiving penalties at the higher end. Fines for “substantive violations,” which includes failing to produce an I-9 form, range from $110 to $1,100 per violation.

In an I-9 audit, the immigrants are not arrested.

Stump, who calls himself a conservative Republican, said there has been “a measurable shift” to employer enforcement.

“Under the Obama administration, there is more emphasis on sanctioning the employer,” Stump said. “However, the number of actual individual arrests in Oklahoma and removal of individuals has significantly increased. The Obama administration has been focusing on removing those in the community posing a threat and danger. He’s practicing smart enforcement.”