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More ICE work site audits underway in LA as enforcement steps up

Immigrant advocates demonstrate outside the Citadel outlet mall in Commerce this week. Immigration agents visited a restaurant there to gather work documents as part of stepped-up audits of local businesses.
Immigrant advocates demonstrate outside the Citadel outlet mall in Commerce this week. Immigration agents visited a restaurant there to gather work documents as part of stepped-up audits of local businesses.
Leslie Berestein Rojas/KPCC

Federal immigration agents continued to visit Los Angeles-area businesses this week, gathering hiring records to check on who may be employed illegally and drawing demonstrators at some locations.

Last week, as part of a larger operation that led to more than 200 arrests, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents served 122 local businesses with inspection notices, advising them that their records would be audited to determine if they are employing anyone illegally. 

ICE said no arrests were made at the businesses, but it appears to be part of stepped-up immigration enforcement at work sites which officials announced last fall.

On a chilly Thursday morning, immigrant advocates picketed outside the Citadel outlet mall in the City of Commerce. Earlier, immigration agents had arrived to collect work authorization forms from a Ruby's Diner restaurant.

“There are about eight of us here, showing solidarity [with] the employees who have been targeted by these ... audits," said Pedro Trujillo, an organizer with the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles. 

Inside the shopping center, management at the restaurant confirmed that immigration officials had been there, collected what they needed and would be in touch.

Employer audits like these have long been common practice of immigration agents. They were conducted extensively during the Obama era, especially in the earlier years of that administration. But in recent months, Trump administration officials have ramped up ICE activity.

In October, ICE Acting Director Thomas Homan said the agency would at least quadruple its work site enforcement actions. The Trump administration has not released recent numbers to show this, but ICE spokeswoman Danielle Bennett said work site enforcement is being increased.

"The goal under work site continues to be the focus on employers," Bennett said. "Federal law states that employers are required to have every new employee fill out I-9 paperwork and display proof that they are authorized to work in the United States." 

The most recent available data on work site enforcement shows 1,360 workplace immigration audits were conducted in fiscal year 2017. That's relatively few compared to 2013, when Obama administration work site audits peaked at 3,127 before falling in later years.

The audits begin with an inspection notice, followed by a review of a businesses' I-9 work authorization forms, which are used to verify an employee's authorization to work in the country, said Los Angeles immigration attorney Carl Shusterman.

After that, ICE will notify businesses of any violations, Shusterman said. "There may be technical violations, and there may be substantive violations. The technical violations, you may not get fined, but the substantive violations, you are definitely going to get fined on." 

The substantive violations typically involve an employer having knowledge that they hired someone unauthorized to work in the U.S. 

Advocates for tighter immigration say when past administrations have attempted work site crackdowns, they have proven politically unpopular. Under the Bush administration, for example, immigration agents raided businesses and arrested workers.

However, "the effort to fine the employers was not very popular with top officials in the administration," said Jessica Vaughan with the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington, D.C. think tank that advocates immigration restrictions.

"So often these fines would end up being knocked down ... the fines were just a cost of doing business in many cases and didn't stick or penalize the employers very much. So they stopped doing it and concentrated on the workers," Vaughan said.

Large fines were levied under the Obama administration, although audits, arrests and employer indictments slowed down during the former president's last years in office.

ICE officials said none of the 212 arrests made last week were tied to their work site visits. But advocates say the visits led to some immigrants walking away from their jobs. Fearful they could be arrested, they don't show up to work, essentially firing themselves.

"At least from the workers I've spoken to, many have quit. They have said they are not going to continue working there," said Trujillo, the immigrant advocate.

Businesses visited by ICE that KPCC spoke with said they were cooperating with the government.