ATLANTA — In the past few months, the roster of companies in a revamped, voluntary immigration enforcement program has expanded by nearly one-fifth as the Obama administration steps up employer audits.
It may seem counterintuitive for a company to voluntarily open its books to the scrutiny of federal agents, but officials with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement say the benefits of its IMAGE program can include lower fines and can enhance a company's image.
"We need IMAGE because an enforcement-only approach isn't going to produce the best results," ICE Director John Morton said in a telephone interview.
The acronym stands for ICE Mutual Agreement between Government and Employers. Officials say it can reduce the employment of illegal immigrants and the use of fake identification documents.
To participate, employers must meet several requirements: enroll in the federal E-Verify program; submit to an ICE audit of their I-9 forms that new employees complete and related documents; establish a written hiring and employment verification policy that includes a yearly internal audit; and sign a partnership agreement with ICE.
The agency says it will train IMAGE participants on proper hiring procedures, fraudulent document detection, use of E-Verify and anti-discrimination procedures.
Many employers already use the E-Verify federal online database to check the employment eligibility of new hires — either voluntarily or because they are required to by state or federal law. But unauthorized workers can still slip through if they use false documents with someone else's real name and matching Social Security number. IMAGE aims to give employers extra tools to ensure a legal workforce, Morton said.
The Obama administration has cracked down on employers as part of its immigration enforcement policy, but officials have emphasized employer audits more than the high-profile workplace raids done during the Bush administration. In fiscal year 2011, the agency conducted 2,496 I-9 audits, up from 2,196 the previous year and far above the 503 in the 2008 fiscal year. ICE initiated 3,291 worksite enforcement cases in fiscal year 2011, versus 1,191 in fiscal year 2008.
Even if an audit shows a company acted in good faith — for example if an employee used a convincing false document — and isn't penalized, it can still experience a disruption in production when all unlawful workers are fired.
The IMAGE program began in 2006 and continued in its original form through July 2011, when it had 117 members. The agency recently simplified the program's requirements and began an aggressive outreach, adding 22 new companies since July. Morton cited a key reason for recent interest in the program: the rise in enforcement actions.
"The agency's worksite enforcement efforts directed at employers is at an all-time high," he said. "We're serious about enforcing the law against employers who violate it."
Because program members must submit to a full I-9 audit to join — meaning they have to let ICE examine a representative sample of the employment documents — it is less likely they'll be audited in the future because the possibility of more internal compliance problems is "pretty minimal," said Memphis, Tenn.- based immigration lawyer Greg Siskind.
Companies in industries that have historically had problems with unauthorized workers, such as agriculture and hospitality, may want to join IMAGE to make sure their employees are eligible to work in the U.S., he said.
"Maybe you're trying to get out in front of that and trying to avoid problems if you actually end up getting audited," Siskind said.
Being "IMAGE certified" can also help a company promote itself to score contracts with other companies and government agencies that place high importance on immigration compliance, said Dawn Lurie, a lawyer who advises businesses on immigration issues.
"I think from a branding perspective, it allows companies to say, 'We are the gold standard in immigration compliance, ICE has certified us,'" she said.
Companies that aren't already using most of the best practices outlined in the IMAGE program might want to wait until they upgrade their internal compliance efforts, Lurie said.
But some companies may not be entirely comfortable entering a partnership with federal authorities.
"It's a law enforcement agency, so you have to think about whether that's a disruptive thing for your business if you have a law enforcement agency basically become your partner on a day-to-day basis," Siskind said.
Morton dismissed that fear.
"Are we a law enforcement agency? Do we enforce the law firmly against violators? You bet," he said. "But if you're doing the right thing, if you're willing to partner with us, if you're willing to open your books and create the kind of controls that lead to voluntary compliance, we will support you all day long."
Companies that participate in IMAGE may see fines reduced should ICE find noncompliance. There's also a better chance that if an issue with unlawful workers arises, ICE might reach out to the company to discuss the problem and allow the company to fix it before launching a formal enforcement action, Lurie said.
Kelly Services, an international staffing company, had been talking to ICE about participating in IMAGE since early this year and finalized its paperwork with the agency last week. Because Kelly is a federal contractor, it has been required to use E-Verify for several years. When company officials learned more about IMAGE, they realized they were already complying with a lot of the requirements, said company attorney Barbara Stockman.
"It made perfect sense for us to support the endeavors of the government in this regard and also to receive the recognition that we had been doing this all along," she said. "When we took a look at the requirements and realized that we were already there, it seemed to be a natural fit."
In fiscal year 2011, ICE spent $6.8 million on salaries for the IMAGE program and about $294,000 on travel, material, conferences and other expenses.
"I'm quite confident that the cost of IMAGE is far less than what it would cost to achieve the same level of compliance through investigations and audits," Morton said.