Guest Blog: Take I-9s Seriously

By Daniel M. Kowalski

Good employees are the lifeblood of all organizations.  Over time, key employees become friends, even ‘family.’  HR managers, business owners and nonprofit executives will do almost anything to protect them and keep them happy.

But one small business  took that notion a step too far.  In 2012 ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement, a branch of the Department of Homeland Security) began investigating California-based Mary’s Gone Crackers, Inc., (“MGC,”) a natural foods manufacturer.  ICE found that roughly one-third of MGC’s 150 employees were undocumented.

MGC told ICE that most of those undocumented employees had been fired or had resigned.  In fact, many had been rehired under new names.  A supervisor continued to work, under a new name, as an independent contractor.  And a person not connected with MGC in any way found that someone in MGC was using her son’s social security number!

It didn’t take long for ICE to see through this ruse, and the hammer came down.  A search warrant was executed, and according to the Justice Department press release, “Mary’s Gone Crackers cooperated with the government’s investigation and took remedial measures, including terminating employees … and taking various steps to ensure compliance with immigration laws and I-9 regulations, including use of E-Verify and the Social Security Verification Service.”

The Justice Department agreed to not criminally prosecute MGC in exchange for a “forfeiture monetary penalty” of $1.5 million dollars and ongoing compliance measures.  The Justice Department posted the non-prosecution agreement, including the compliance plan, online here.  Note that the agreement applies only to the company,  but to individual employees, owners or shareholders, who may yet have independent civil and/or criminal liability.

The takeaway, of course, is that ignoring federal immigration laws, including Form I-9 (Employment Eligibility Verification,) could expose your organization to crippling financial penalties  and even criminal prosecution.  Smart organizations will retain independent counsel to do a “deep dive” internal audit to make sure all employees are authorized to work in the U.S., and that all I-9 forms are in perfect order.

Daniel M. Kowalski is the Managing Attorney at the Allott Immigration Law Firm, one of Colorado’s oldest boutique law firms focused on citizenship, visas and compliance.  A Denver native, he is the Editor-in-Chief of Bender’s Immigration Bulletin (LexisNexis) and has been practicing immigration law exclusively since 1985.  Follow him on Twitter @dkbib.