Feds focus on businesses that hire illegal workers



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Posted on April 13, 2011 at 10:08 PM

Updated Wednesday, Apr 13 at 10:32 PM

DALLAS — Instead of arresting illegal workers, the government is now cracking down on their employers — sometimes fining them hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The government says it is an effective tool against illegal immigration.

Critics say officials are ignoring the real problem — the illegal immigrants themselves, who are also breaking the law.

You've seen the law enforcement spectacles, as federal immigration agents round up illegal workers at places like Pilgrim's Pride and Swift Meat.

Five years later, those media events are not likely to be repeated.

For Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), it's no longer about the worker. It's about his or her boss.

"We're concentrating mostly on the employer," explained John Chakwin, the ICE Special Agent in Charge for North Texas. "What we want to do is set a tone for compliance throughout the community."

How do they do it? With paper.

Instead of raiding business, ICE audits their paperwork, looking for proof that a company knowingly hires illegal workers. They're called "I-9 inspections."

"We can an audit quicker and with less manpower and we can do more with what we have," Chakwin said.

Through the Freedom of Information Act, News 8 obtained a list of Texas companies that have collectively been fined hundreds of thousands of dollars over the last 15 months.

Most of the targeted companies were near Houston, like Action Rags, which was fined $360,000.

In the Rio Grande Valley, King Ranch was fined about $13,500.

The list also includes Dallas-based Lee Roy Westbrook Construction, which was hit by a $21,000 levy. But records show the company went out of business two months before the fine the was levied.

"It definitely works for our government because they assess incredible fines against the employers," said immigration attorney Michelle Scopollette. She has defended corporations against I-9 enforcement.

Scopollette says enforcing against employers and not illegal employees addresses only half the problem. "It needs to be to be a dual direction toward both sides, not just employers but also the employees, because there has to be accountability on both sides."

But that's not how ICE sees things.

"We want to have a climate where people are compliant," Chakwin said. "And I think this is the best way to do it."

ICE says employment is a "root cause" of illegal immigration and putting business owners on notice goes a lot further than arresting workers — no matter how big the roundup.

E-mail dschechter@wfaa.com