An Ohio-based meat company, Fresh Mark, Inc., became the first employer in the state to join an employment compliance program run by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) last month. The program, known as the ICE Mutual Agreement between Government and Employers (IMAGE), allows employers to use government databases to verify the employment authorization of their workers, in exchange for allowing ICE access to employment records. ICE touts the program as helping employers maintain a “secure and stable workforce.”
The IMAGE program is a “voluntary partnership” between ICE and participating employers. Its purpose, according to ICE, is to prevent the “vulnerabilities in today’s marketplace” caused by undocumented immigrants working without employment authorization. In order to qualify to participate, employers must complete several steps, beginning with enrollment in the E-Verify program. E-Verify is a system maintained by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) that allows employers to check a new hire’s employment authorization status online, using a variety of DHS and other government databases. Employers wishing to participate in IMAGE must also develop and submit policies for verifying the employment eligibility of new hires, including an annual internal audit of I-9 forms. Companies must allow ICE officials to inspect I-9 forms for their current workers, and they must execute a “partnership agreement” with ICE.
The IMAGE “partnership agreement” allows for certain benefits or waivers for employers who complete the program’s prerequisites. ICE agrees that, after conducting its initial I-9 audit of the employer, it will not conduct another audit for at least two years unless it has specific information regarding an employment violation. ICE will also waive or minimize fines if the initial audit turns up employment violations on less than half of the employer’s I-9 forms. If more than half of the forms are in violation, ICE will only fine the company $110 per violation, the statutory minimum amount. In the event that ICE discovers discrepancies between I-9 data and other employee data, it will allow the employer “ample time” to resolve them before assessing any fines.
ICE announced Fresh Mark’s participation in IMAGE at an April 24 signing ceremony at the Strongsville, Ohio office of ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations (HSI). A company spokesperson said that Fresh Mark has “proactively partnered” with immigration authorities for almost ten years. HSI’s special agent in charge for Ohio and Michigan described the program, and others like it, as creating a “permanent culture of compliance” in participating employers.
According to ICE’s press release, it has increased its number of annual I-9 audits, from 503 conducted in 2008 to 2,496 in 2011. It arrested 221 employers during that time period, assessing more than $10 million in fines. Whether or not an employer chooses to participate in IMAGE, E-Verify, or any other employment verification program, it is a good business practice to check and confirm the employment eligibility of all current and new employees.
The United States immigration system can be complicated and confusing for employers and employees alike. Ohio immigration visa lawyer Gus Shihab guides people through the process of legally working or legally employing immigrants. For a free and confidential consultation, contact us today online or at (800) 625-3404.