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Articles and thoughts by Peter Holslin

ICE auditing 60 businesses in San Diego and Imperial counties

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This article was published on CityBeat‘s blog yesterday.

November 20, 2009 – 5:07 pm — Peter Holslin

In an effort to root out undocumented workers from 1,000 businesses across the country, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) began auditing 60 businesses in San Diego and Imperial counties yesterday, said Lauren Mack, spokeswoman for ICE in San Diego.

It’s part of a new immigration-enforcement strategy implemented in April that targets employers, Mack said.

“We’re focused on finding and penalizing employers who think they can unfairly get an illegal work force,” she said. “By increasing the criminal and the civil enforcement of immigration-related employment laws, we think we are imposing a very smart and tough enforcement strategy to even the playing field for those who are playing by the rules and hiring a legal work force.”

ICE officials declined to name any of the businesses that are facing audits when they announced that they were launching the workplace audits, but said that they were the chosen after getting investigative leads and because of their “connection to public safety and national security.”

In San Diego, that can include anything from the defense contractor General Atomics, which manufactures Predator drones, to Raphael’s Party Rentals, which has rented out party supplies to military bases around the county. In 2007, an ICE audit of Raphael’s led to the detainment of 12 employees.

In the current sweep, auditors will look for inconsistencies in an employee’s Employee Eligibility Verification Form, known as an I-9 form. If employees are found to possess faked documents, their employers will face fines—or even criminal charges, since it is illegal for companies to knowingly hire illegal immigrants.

This is the second mass audit for San Diego County since the strategy began, Mack said. In July, ICE audited 39 businesses in the county. Of those, 25 were found to be compliant while nine are still under review and five cases are awaiting legislative procedures for their final penalty.

In September, ICE’s efforts became a flashpoint for debate when an audit of the L.A.-based clothing manufacturer American Apparel led to the firing of 1,800 workers.

Conservatives like Brian Bilbray, the Republican Congress member from San Diego County, applauded the American Apparel audit, which began under the Bush Administration. But immigrant-rights leaders have criticized the current strategy of auditing companies and penalizing employers, saying that Obama has reneged on his campaign promise to reform an enforcement-driven policy that denies undocumented workers the opportunity to seek legal residency or citizenship.

Pedro Rios, the director of U.S./Mexico Border Program for San Diego’s office of the American Friends Service Committee, a liberal policy and rights organization, said immigration policy hasn’t fundamentally changed under the Obama administration.

“The rhetoric has changed. It’s not so much anymore about the war against terrorism, which is what the rhetoric was under the Bush administration,” Rios told CityBeat in October. “But the policies and practices are very similar.”

But with the workplace audits, he said, the government appears to be taking a more sophisticated approach to immigration enforcement, trading showy raids that target workers for stealthy audits that send a clear warning to business owners.

Dov Charney, American Apparel’s founder and CEO, is an outspoken supporter of amnesty for illegal immigrants. “In some ways, you kind of have to question what’s the link there,” Rios said of the company’s audit. “Are they targeting them because of their statements?

“If they’re not, it still impacts over a thousand workers who were employed with American Apparel,” he added. “So that creates a chilling effect for other businesses, who are saying, ‘I’m going to fire the workers who don’t have papers before the government comes for me.’”

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