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NPZ Immigration Law Blog

Monday, October 28, 2013

ICE IN THE WINTER? Employers Need to Be Aware of Possible I-9 Form Audits.


No organization, no matter what the size, is insulated from the potential for an I-9 audit or investigation by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) office. NPZ Law Group continues to be called in to defend employers against civil and criminal fines and penalties for the unauthorized employment of foreign national workers in the U.S. It is critical that you, as a business owner, make sure that your I-9 Forms are being completed and properly maintained.

On November 6, 1986, the enactment of the Immigration Reform and Control Act required employers to verify the identity and employment eligibility of their employees and created criminal and civil sanctions for employment related violations. Section 274A (b) of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA), codified in 8 U.S.C. § 1324a (b), requires employers to verify the identity and employment eligibility of all individuals hired in the United States after November 6, 1986. 8 C.F.R. § 274a.2 designates the Employment Eligibility Verification Form I-9 (Form I-9) as the means of documenting this verification.

Employers are required by law to maintain for inspection original Forms I-9 for all current employees. In the case of former employees, retention of Forms I-9 are required for a period of at least three years from the date of hire or for one year after the employee is no longer employed, whichever is longer. Administrative audits of employers is on the rise because the government stands to collect a great deal of money in fines and penalties.

The administrative inspection process is initiated by the service of a Notice of Inspection (NOI) upon an employer compelling the production of Forms I-9. By law, employers are provided with at least three business days to produce the Forms I-9. Often, ICE will request the employer provide supporting documentation, which may include a copy of the payroll, list of current employees, Articles of Incorporation, and business licenses.

ICE agents or auditors then conduct an inspection of the Forms I-9 for compliance. When technical or procedural violations are found, pursuant to INA §274A(b)(6)(B) (8 U.S.C. § 1324a(b)(6)(B)), an employer is given ten business days to make corrections. An employer may receive a monetary fine for all substantive and uncorrected technical violations. You can potentially head-off liabilities by doing a "self-audit" and correcting potential violations of the I-9 Forms.

Employers determined to have knowingly hired or continued to employ unauthorized workers under INA § 274A(a)(1)(a) or (a)(2) (8 U.S.C. § 1324a(a)(1)(a) or (a)(2)) will be required to cease the unlawful activity, may be fined, and in certain situations may be criminally prosecuted. Additionally, an employer found to have knowingly hired or continued to employ unauthorized workers may be subject to debarment by ICE, meaning that the employer will be prevented from participating in future federal contracts and from receiving other government benefits.

Monetary penalties for knowingly hire and continuing to employ violations range from $375 to $16,000 per violation, with repeat offenders receiving penalties, at the higher end. Penalties for substantive violations, which includes failing to produce a Form I-9, range from $110 to $1,100 per violation. In determining penalty amounts, ICE considers five factors: the size of the business, good faith effort to comply, seriousness of violation, whether the violation involved unauthorized workers, and history of previous violations.

ICE will notify the audited party, in writing, of the results of the inspection once completed. The following are the most common notices:

1. Notice of Inspection Results - also known as a "compliance letter," used to notify a business that they were found to be in compliance.
2. Notice of Suspect Documents - advises the employer that based on a review of the Forms I-9 and documentation submitted by the employee, ICE has determined that an employee is unauthorized to work and advises the employer of the possible criminal and civil penalties for continuing to employ that individual. ICE provides the employer and employee an opportunity to present additional documentation to demonstrate work authorization if they believe the finding is in error.
3. Notice of Discrepancies - advises the employer that based on a review of the Forms I-9 and documentation submitted by the employee, ICE has been unable to determine their work eligibility. The employer should provide the employee with a copy of the notice, and give the employee an opportunity to present ICE with additional documentation to establish their employment eligibility.
4. Notice of Technical or Procedural Failures - identifies technical violations identified during the inspection and gives the employer ten business days to correct the forms. After ten business days, uncorrected technical and procedural failures will become substantive violations.
5. Warning Notice - issued in circumstances where substantive verification violations were identified, but circumstances do not warrant a monetary penalty and there is the expectation of future compliance by the employer.
6. Notice of Intent to Fine (NIF) - may be issued for substantive, uncorrected technical, knowingly hire and continuing to employ violations.

In instances where a NIF is served, charging documents will be provided specifying the violations committed by the employer. The employer has the opportunity to either negotiate a settlement with ICE or request a hearing before the Office of the Chief Administrative Hearing Officer (OCAHO) within 30 days of receipt of the NIF. If the employer takes no action after receiving a NIF, ICE will issue a Final Order. If a hearing is requested, OCAHO assigns the case to an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ), and sends all parties a copy of a Notice of Hearing and government's complaint, thus setting the adjudicative process in motion.

The Notice of Hearing spells out the procedural requirements for answering the complaint and the potential consequences of failure to file a timely response. Many OCAHO cases never reach the evidentiary hearing stage because the parties either reach a settlement, subject to the approval of the ALJ, or the ALJ reaches a decision on the merits through dispositive prehearing rulings.

The immigration lawyers at the Nachman Phulwani Zimovcak (NPZ) Law Group can work with you or your human resources staff to check I-9 Forms to be sure that you may be ready fora potential I-9 audit by ICE. Please feel free to contact us at info@visaserve.com or by calling our offices at 201-670-0006 (x100).

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