By Gregory B. Hladky
3:25 PM EST, January 8, 2013
The headline on the federal news release read: "ICE fines Connecticut companies hiring unlawful employees." One official was quoted saying the $132,584 in penalties were part of a national campaign to stop businesses from hiring undocumented workers and thus discourage illegal immigration.
Except not all of the dozen Connecticut companies cited had hired illegal workers, leaving their owners royally pissed off for being fined for "paperwork errors" and labeled as immigration scumbags. A spokesman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement acknowledged that "a few" of the Connecticut companies cited were only guilty of paperwork violations.
And one immigration expert argues this Obama administration policy of targeting employers rather than rounding up their undocumented workers is backfiring.
"I think this sort of enforcement effort against employers is entirely misguided," says Michael Wishnie, a Yale Law School professor who specializes in immigration. He insists the ultimate result of the federal law banning employment of undocumented workers has left immigrants more vulnerable to "bottom feeders" who skirt labor laws.
The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement actions against those Connecticut businesses were announced in November. Similar press releases were issued concerning ICE fines of eight companies in Maine and 17 more in Massachusetts.
Nationally, nearly $13 million in fines were levied by immigration authorities against employers in 2012, a huge increase from previous years.
Obama administration officials have touted this campaign as a major shift away from the Bush-era policy of rounding up tens of thousands of undocumented immigrants in workplace raids. Now, say Obama's spokesmen, it's the rule-breaking employers who are getting hammered.
Wishnie argues that what Obama wants is to "simultaneously appear to be tough on immigration... and appearing to be the party committed to immigration reform."
The problem, says Wishnie, is that the 1986 law making it illegal to hire undocumented workers has resulted in taking those workers out of the mainstream of the U.S. labor force. That leaves them open to "unscrupulous employers" who know they won't be prosecuted for discrimination or sex abuse or violation of workers' rights, if those workers are illegal to begin with.
"They never have to pay the consequences for unfair labor practices," Wishnie says. Despite the increased number of new ICE inspections, a relatively tiny number of employers who hire illegals are ever caught.
Meanwhile, some employers who simply screw up on their paperwork are getting caught up in the new ICE enforcement net.
"They didn't find anybody that was illegal," says Henry Blevio, president of Danbury-based Kingswood Kitchen Co. Inc.
Blevio's firm was hit with $12,000 in fines for paperwork errors on I-9 forms that are supposed to verify that employees are legally authorized to work in the U.S. He says the penalties were actually negotiated down from the original $20,000 in fines.
"One of the forms was mine," says Blevio, who was born in Yonkers, N.Y., and has worked at Kingswood for more than 20 years. "We're not happy about it, and we feel we're being [unfairly] targeted."
Blevio doesn't know why his company was singled out for an ICE audit. One possible explanation might be that about a third of his 33-person workforce is Hispanic. "But they're all here legally," he says.
Several other company officials of businesses on that Connecticut list declined to speak on the record but told similar stories.
At least one company, Calabro Cheese Corp. in East Haven, did have a few undocumented immigrants on staff when ICE inspectors arrived there in 2010. Rich Kaminski, the general manager, told the Yale Daily News those workers had used forged Social Security cards and other documents. He declined to be interviewed for this story.
Calabro Cheese was fined $45,000, the largest 2012 penalty for any Connecticut company cited on the ICE list.
Wishnie says tips to ICE often come from a business competitor looking to create problems for the competition or because they fear another business is getting an unfair advantage by hiring illegal immigrants.
ICE spokesman Ross Feinstein doesn't dispute that his agency "takes leads from tips." He also points out that there's no way the feds "can audit every single company" so they have to pick and choose somehow.
"We're not policy makers," Feinstein says of criticism of the current federal campaign. "We follow the laws that are on the books."
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