Question:

I am the human resources manager at my company, and am interested in learning more about the federal government’s I-9 audit practice. Recently I heard that the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (“ICE”) agency had begun targeting executives and managers involved in illegal hiring processes, rather than targeting the unauthorized workers. I also heard that there is a federal government program that requires employers to create a “snitch line” in order to pass its I-9 audits. Is this true?

Answer:

It is true that as of early November 2009, ICE had officially targeted more than 3,000 employers since announcing a new strategy in April 2009 that focuses on executives and managers involved in illegal hiring practices rather than on unauthorized workers. These types of immigration audits are time-consuming, and can potentially lead to significant fines, penalties and criminal prosecution. For example, in September 2010, ICE announced that a settlement for more than $1 million had been reached with the clothing company Abercrombie & Fitch for immigration violations. In November 2010, the president of a California furniture manufacturer was charged with criminal violations stemming from an investigation into allegations that the company hired illegal workers.

As you know, immigration issues can be highly charged. Information may travel quickly, and as quickly become misinformation. What you heard regarding required “snitch lines” appears to be a mischaracterization of one element of a federal program that started in 2006, the ICE Mutual Agreement Between Government and Employers (“IMAGE”). IMAGE is a voluntary partnership initiative between the federal government and private sector employers. The initiative is designed to foster cooperative relationships and to strengthen overall hiring practices. ICE developed the program as a new concept for employer self-compliance within the worksite enforcement program, through which employers can achieve a lawful workforce through self-policing of their hiring practices.

Notably, employers seeking to be IMAGE certified must agree to the following:

  • Complete a self-assessment questionnaire.
  • Enroll in E-verify, the Internet-based employment verification program.
  • Enroll in the Social Security Number Verification Service.
  • Adhere to twelve IMAGE Best Hiring Practices.
    Undergo an I-9 audit by ICE.
  • Sign a partnership agreement with the agency.

Again, IMAGE is a voluntary partnership. It is not designed to be undertaken by every employer, but is intended to involve “role-model” businesses in their industries that wish to partner with the federal government in their efforts to maintain an authorized workforce. The agency launched the program to help employers in certain sectors develop a more secure and stable workforce and to enhance awareness of fraudulent documents through education and training. If a sector company claims that it is impossible to have a legal workforce in an industry such as construction, retail or janitorial services, IMAGE members can counter that argument by pointing to their own success.

Your question regarding so-called “snitch lines” raises the issue of certain elements of IMAGE that some employers may find objectionable. One requirement of IMAGE that some companies consider too invasive is the obligatory federal audit. Another element that gives certain employers pause is one of the twelve “Best Hiring Practices” to which IMAGE partners must adhere: “Establish a tip line mechanism (inbox, email, etc.) for employees to report activity relating to the employment of unauthorized workers, and a protocol for responding to employee tips.” It is likely this provision of the IMAGE initiative that you heard described as a required “snitch line.” Such a required “Best Hiring Practice” may be seen as undesirable by many employers. However, and significantly, none of the ICE best practices such as the “snitch line” are required in order to pass an immigration audit. They are only required if your employer intends to become an IMAGE partner.

Whether or not your employer wishes to become an IMAGE partner, we recommend that you review the agency’s Best Practices in consultation with an employment or immigration attorney. The Best Practices list can be found at
http://www.ice.gov/image/best-practice.htm.
Your goal in so doing should be to ensure that your employer’s hiring practices and its current workforce would pass an immigration audit.

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