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Convenience stores are rapidly becoming a one-stop shop for government investigations focusing on undocumented workers. Along with all employers, convenience stores are increasingly being targeted by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) for civil and criminal penalties for unlawful employment of undocumented workers.
Convenience store owners must know that a single ICE investigation may lead to a complete shutdown of their business. On June 17, the Wall Street Journal published an article stating that ICE arrested nine 7-Eleven owners and managers for harboring and hiring undocumented workers.
Following the investigation, the corporate office of 7-Eleven Inc. told its 5,600 franchise owners that it was requiring an internal review of personnel files after federal authorities seized 14 stores in New York and Virginia that employed undocumented workers. Now, more than ever, is the time for convenience store owners to ensure their I-9 forms, policies and procedures are compliant with federal law.
With ICE increasing its enforcement efforts, all employers must take efforts to ensure their immigration compliance policies are up to par. In 2013, ICE investigated a record number of employers and this number will only increase. Even small employers are not immune to ICE liability.
ICE has recently made 520 criminal arrests. Of the individuals arrested, 240 were owners, executives, managers, supervisors or human resources employees. Also in relation to ICE investigations, the government agency has issued $13 million in monetary fines.
ICE investigations are swift and aggressive. Once an investigation begins, employers are required to turn over various employment records, in addition to form I-9s within 72 hours. The government delves into an employer’s records to make sure that employers are not hiring undocumented workers.
So, what is ICE investigating? Federal law requires all U.S. employers to confirm identity and work eligibility by completing an I-9 for all employees as of Nov. 6, 1986. Failure to comply with the law could result in civil and even criminal charges against managers and owners.
In addition to the possibility of criminal charges, companies can face hefty fines ranging from $110 to $1,100 per employee. ICE also requires companies to terminate employees who are undocumented, usually within 10 days after an investigation is completed.
Convenience store owners must take action now to ensure they are prepared for an ICE investigation. The following is a brief overview of best practices employers need to know:
- Enroll in E-Verify. Use of E-Verify, a free online program that allows employers to check employment verification for new hires, can establish good faith and show the company is trying to avoid hiring undocumented workers. Using the system can also help a company limit the civil and criminal penalties for non-compliance.
- Establish an internal I-9 training program. ICE officials take a close look at the I-9 forms required to verify that employees are authorized to work in the United States. If ICE officials find non-compliance or a pattern of identity fraud, they may expand their search to other facilities or chainwide.
- Avoid harboring scenarios. Don’t offer housing or transportation to workers you know are undocumented. Penalties for employers deemed as harboring illegal workers are more severe.
- Establish a no-match letter protocol. Don’t ignore no-match letters. Resolve the problems and keep track of all letters received.
- Avoid violating anti-discrimination practices. Asking Hispanic workers to provide more documentation than necessary, for example, could be seen as discrimination.
- Establish a culture of immigration compliance. Put policies in writing to address things like how the company will respond to complaints of identity theft, or reports that an employee is undocumented.
- Stay informed. ICE’s website has a list of best hiring practices at www.ice.gov.
- Be clear. Use red ink for corrections or updates to I-9 forms as companies review their files. Any new I-9 forms produced should be attached to the old and marked "re-accomplished" or "updated" by an authorized company representative. Do not use whiteout and keep originals.
- Don’t ignore others' responsibility. You don’t need to collect I-9s from independent contractors, but contracts should have language that clearly states your company expects compliance with immigration laws. Employers should demand audit rights to make sure contractors working on their premises are documented to work.
- Arrange an I-9 audit. Hire an outside auditing firm to ensure your company is in compliance.
Daniel N. Ramirez is a partner of Monty & Ramirez LLP, a Houston law firm. He represents private and public employers in the areas of employment, labor and immigration issues. Ramirez can be reached at (281) 493-5529 or email@example.com.
Editor's note: The opinions expressed in this column are the author's and may not necessarily reflect the views of Convenience Store News.