The rate of Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids and audits on US businesses has almost quintupled in the past two years. Without new legal paths for immigrant workers, businesses are having trouble making up for enforcement-caused labor shortages.
What are ICE raids and audits, and what is the difference between them?
Immigration and Customs Enforcement is a branch of the Department of Homeland Security which oversees the enforcement of federal immigration laws. ICE has three primary means of enforcement: detaining individuals, conducting workplace raids, and performing I-9 audits on businesses. The first method is self-explanatory, ICE will detain specific individuals which are reported as unauthorized immigrants to the US. Raids and Audits are less straightforward and have a more direct impact on US businesses.
ICE raids happen with the stated intention of catching unauthorized employees off guard. Any given raid is the culmination of an investigation which has provided proof that multiple undocumented immigrants are employed by a business. Employers are not required to answer any questions during an ICE raid, however, with a warrant, ICE may seize payroll forms, I-9 forms and supporting documents, bank records, social security documents, IRS forms, and other financial records. After a raid, undocumented employees are detained, and the business is fined according to their immigration crimes.
I-9 audits are similar, yet more civil. In an audit, ICE will provide a notice of inspection three days prior to their arrival. On arrival, ICE agents gather I-9 forms—a document all employees must fill out within three days of starting employment which details employment authorization—and supporting documents. Based on any and all I-9 errors, ICE levies fines and charges against the business and detains any undocumented workers found.
Despite the legal and semantic distinction between raids and audits, ICE officers end up seizing the same forms, levying the same fines, and detaining the same people using either method. In 2017, employers paid 7.8 million in civil fines and 97.6 million in I-9 fines and restitution fees. Recently, records have been set in immigration penalties for businesses. In a 2018 Tennessee worksite raid, over 97 arrests were made at one meatpacking plant. Also last year, an I-9 audit of Asplundh Tree Experts was the largest fine ever paid in an employment case—settlement payments reached over 95 million dollars. Using both raids and audits, ICE leadership has expressed an aim to create a “culture of compliance” among US businesses. While their methods often receive bad press, they argue worksite immigration enforcement protects jobs for legal employees and eliminates unfair advantages created for companies with illegal hiring practices.
How is immigration enforcement damaging business prospects and the economy?
While ICE claims it is protecting fair business practice, national security, and American jobs—in reality, a focus on enforcement without an equal focus on legal immigration reform is damaging the economy. Under President Trump’s enforcement-focused immigration platform, ICE raids and audits have quintupled, but no additional legal immigration policy has been introduced to address labor shortages.
Raids and audits have created workplace disruption and a climate of fear that is negatively affecting the agricultural sector, small businesses, and labor-scarce industries such as construction. Businesses in California have seen a decline in consumer activity and accordingly have laid off 20-30% of workers across the board—including legal employees.
Even just the increased threat of raids and audits has caused dramatic labor shortages—particularly in seasonal work. In 2017, 55% of California farmers were using less than half their land due to labor shortages which are the result of increased immigration enforcement. Out of 2 million farm laborers in California, 1.5 million are unauthorized. Prohibition on undocumented labor has caused an outsourcing of agricultural business to Central and South America instead of causing, as ICE intends, additional job creation in the US.
Undocumented immigration does create unfair business practice and can result in bad employment conditions. However, in absence of legal immigration reforms, the undocumented labor force is necessary. H-2A visas, the only legal option for farm employees, only represent 10% of American farm hires as they are complicated and the product of a lengthy process. H-2A’s also prevent immigrants who want to work year round from legal employment. Seasonal visas well exemplify the separation between immigration law and labor reality—industries such as dairy and meatpacking need laborers throughout the year, but have no American worker prospects.
In Tennessee, America’s heartland, a loss of 10% of undocumented work would result in 21 million fewer tax dollars, but instead of moving to legalize these workers, the government is increasing deportations. As businesses are losing their employees while simultaneously suffering great losses from overhead and fines, both Trump supporters and adversaries can agree on one thing: “raids are bad for business.” In the interest of American competitiveness, and in individual business successes in shrinking American sectors such as construction and agriculture, ICE enforcement needs to be paired with an equally successful legal immigration expansion or it must be relaxed to allow for prospering American business.