SHARECOMMENTMORE

SEATTLE -- U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement reached itshighest number yet of companies audited for illegal immigrants onpayrolls this past fiscal year.

Audits of employer forms increasedfrom 250 in fiscal year 2007 to more than 3,000 in 2012. From fiscalyears 2009 to 2012, the total amount of fines grew to nearly $13 millionfrom $1 million. The number of company managers arrested has increasedto 238, according to data provided by ICE.

The investigations of companies have been one of the pillars of President Obama's immigration policy.

WhenObama recently spoke about addressing immigration reform in his secondterm, he said any measure should contain penalties for companies thatpurposely hire illegal immigrants. It's not a new stand, but one he willlikely highlight as his administration launches efforts to revamp theU.S. immigration system.

"Our goal is compliance and deterrence,"said Brad Bench, special agent in charge at ICE's Seattle office. "Themajority of the companies we do audits on end up with no fines at all,but again it's part of the deterrence method. If companies know we'reout there, looking across the board, they're more likely to bringthemselves into compliance."

While the administration has usedthose numbers to bolster their record on immigration enforcement,advocates say the audits have pushed workers further underground bycausing mass layoffs and disrupted business practices.

When theICE audit letter arrived at Belco Forest Products, management wasn'tentirely surprised. Two nearby businesses in Shelton, a small timbertown on a bay off Washington state's Puget Sound, had already beeninvestigated.

But the 2010 inquiry became a months-long processthat cost the timber company experienced workers and money. It was fined$17,700 for technicalities on their record keeping.

"What I don'tlike is the roll of the dice," said Belco's chief financial officer TomBehrens. "Why do some companies get audited and some don't? Eithereveryone gets audited or nobody does. Level the playing field."

Belco was one of 339 companies fined in fiscal year 2011 and one of thousands audited that year.

Employersare required to have their workers fill out an I-9 form that declaresthem authorized to work in the country. Currently, an employer needsonly to verify that identifying documents look real.

The audits,part of a $138 million worksite enforcement effort, rely on ICE officersscouring over payroll records to find names that don't match SocialSecurity numbers and other identification databases.

The audits"don't make any sense before a legalization program," said Daniel Costa,an immigration policy analyst at the Economic Policy Institute, aWashington, D.C., think tank. "You're leaving the whole thing up to anemployer's eyesight and subjective judgment, that's the failure of thelaw. There's no verification at all. Then you have the government makinga subjective judgment about subjective judgment."

An AP review ofaudits that resulted in fines in fiscal year 2011 shows that thefederal government is fining industries across the country reliant onmanual labor and that historically have hired immigrants. The dataprovides a glimpse into the results of a process affecting thousands ofcompanies and thousands of workers nationwide.

Over the years, ICEhas switched back-and-forth between making names of the companies finedpublic or not. Lately, ICE has emphasized its criminal investigationsof managers, such as a Dunkin' Donuts manager in Maine sentenced to homearrest for knowingly hiring illegal immigrants or a manager of anIllinois hiring firm who got 18 months in prison.

Many employers also wonder how ICE picks the companies it probes.

"Geographyis not a factor. The size of the company is not a factor. And theindustry it's in is not a factor. We can audit any company anywhere ofany size," Bench said. He added ICE auditors follow leads from thepublic, other employers, employees and do perform some random audits.

ButICE auditors hit ethnic stores, restaurants, bakeries, manufacturingcompanies, construction, food packaging, janitorial services, catering,dairies and farms. The aviation branch of corporate giant GE, franchisesof sandwich shop Subway and a subsidiary of food product company Heinzwere among some of the companies with national name recognition. GE wasfined $2,000.

In fiscal year 2011, the most recent year reviewedby AP, the median fine was $11,000. The state with the most workplacesfined was Texas with 63, followed by New Jersey with 37.

Thelowest fine was $90 to a Massachusetts fishing company. The highest finewas $394,944 to an employment agency in Minneapolis, according to thedata released to AP through a public records request.

A Subway spokesman said the company advises franchise owners to follow the law. A Heinz spokesman declined comment.

Benchdidn't have specifics on what percentage of fines come from companieshaving illegal immigrants on their payroll, as opposed to technicalpaperwork fines in recent years.

Julie Wood, a former deputydirector at ICE who now runs a consulting firm, said she'd like to seethe burden of proving the legality of a company's workforce go from theemployer to the government. She'd like to see a type of program, such asE-Verify, be implemented with the I-9 employment form. E-Verify is avoluntary and free program for private employers that checks a workerseligibility.

"At the end of the day, the fine is the least of it,"she said. "Usually the company will spend more on legal fees. But it isa huge headache for the company to lose workers."

Wood said she'd like to see the agency go after more criminal charges and focus on companies that treat workers inhumanely.

SHARECOMMENTMORE