Thursday, September 22, 2011

How a Dairy Farmer Survived a Silent Raid by ICE

According to agriculture and farm journal, AGWeb, a Arizona dairy farmer survived a Silent Raid by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement relatively unscathed (he only lost 10% of his workforce).  He did two things that helped save his farm.  The Reader's Digest version is that he had conducted a voluntary I-9 Audit using a 3rd party expert (like Form I-9 Compliance, LLC) to determine where he had problems and how to resolve them and he implemented the use of E-Verify to verify that all new hires have a right to work in the U.S.  AGWeb's report is detailed below.

"ICE just showed up."

Arizona dairy producer Ross Tappan was attending a United Dairymen of Arizona meeting in Tempe last April when that text message from his office manager appeared on his mobile phone.

Tappan didn’t panic. He finished the meeting and then drove to his 6,300-cow dairy near Mesa, 25 miles away.

By the time he arrived, the two U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents—whose visit had lasted just five minutes—were gone. But their directive had been clear: They would return in 72 hours to collect three years’ worth of I-9 forms and other employee documents from the dairy.

That day marked the beginning of a month-long ordeal that eventually cost Tappan 10 of his dairy’s 90 employees—more than 10% of his work force.

But Tappan believes he was lucky—in a way. The ICE agents didn’t conduct the kind of raid that routs and removes workers on the spot, leaving a dairy with no one to milk or feed its cows. Moreover, as an employer in a state that’s taken a hard-line stance against illegal immigration, Tappan was already one step ahead.

"We’d been preparing for an I-9 audit for three years," he says. "We kind of expected it."

An I-9 audit, often called a "silent raid," involves a thorough ICE inspection of a business’s employee documents, principally I-9 forms and payroll information. The goal is to ensure that employees are legally authorized to work in the U.S.

To meet this goal, the government launched an electronic employee verification program in 1997. It was expanded to all states and the District of Columbia in 2004, and is now called E-Verify. Operated by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Social Security Administration, E-Verify is an Internet-based system that checks Social Security numbers to verify whether a person can legally work in the U.S.

Nationwide, more than 269,000 employers at more than 900,000 work sites are enrolled in the E-Verify program, DHS says.

While E-Verify isn’t federally mandated, a handful of states, including Arizona, require its use. At Tappan’s dairy, that was enough to spur office manager Elaine Lynch into action three years ago.
"She was adamant that we implement E-Verify," recalls Tappan, general manager of Arizona Dairy Co. "With hindsight, I’m glad we did."

Working with an immigration attorney, Tappan and Lynch conducted a self-audit before implementing E-Verify in 2008. The dairy’s inspection revealed dozens of employees with improper documentation. Tappan was forced to lay off several who couldn’t substantiate their work eligibility. The internal review reassured him that his dairy had verified its work force and that his office staff had learned how to react if ICE agents ever appeared at the dairy.
I 9 audit 2
Elaine Lynch, right, was adamant that Arizona Dairy Co. implement E-Verify three years ago.
"With hindsight, I’m glad we did," says Ross Tappan, left.
PHOTO: Catherine Merlo
After the ICE visit last April, Tappan and his staff went to work pulling more than 200 I-9 forms that the dairy had on file from the past three years. Much of their time was spent copying those originals as well as other requested documents, including payroll information, business licenses and paperwork on employees who were no longer employed.

"There was a funeral the following day that almost all the people on the dairy would be attending," Tappan recalls. "So we spent all night working on the I-9s. It was stressful."

As promised, the ICE agents came back three days later and collected the dairy’s I-9 forms and other documents. Twenty-five days later, the federal agency completed its audit.

It found that 11 of Tappan’s 90 employees did not have legal authorization to work in the U.S. They would have to be fired within 10 days. Half were new hires from the previous three years.
Tappan’s greatest loss was an 11-year employee whose technical and electrical skills had helped boost him to second in command under an overall manager. Others who’d failed ICE’s scrutiny ran feed mixers or worked in the calf operation.

"Six were key people we’ll really miss," Tappan says. "They had never been in trouble with the law. They were family men. They had kids in school here. Their kids played with mine."

One employee later was cleared after the audit mistakenly listed him as undocumented.

Several employees asked Tappan what they could do to legally stay. He advised them to get an immigration lawyer and cautioned that they could be picked up by law enforcement officers. He promised to rehire them if they could produce legal documentation.

"We had some workers living on housing here on the dairy," Tappan says. "I gave them a generous amount of time to leave. I wasn’t going to put anyone out on the street."
Tappan never learned why his dairy was targeted for an I-9 raid. Arizona Dairy Co. was one of 2,393 U.S. businesses that underwent I-9 audits by ICE between Jan. 1 and Aug. 6 of this year, according to Vincent Picard, ICE public affairs officer. That compares to 2,196 audits in 2010 and 1,444 in 2009. It’s not known how many dairies are among those, since ICE doesn’t track audits by industry type. But agricultural sources and news stories indicate that the number of dairy audits is growing.

"I’ve heard that ICE sometimes get calls from disgruntled workers," Tappan says. "We don’t know if we had missed filling out something on our forms. ICE didn’t tell us. I assume they didn’t want to share their trade secrets."

Tappan’s work force is clean now, he says. Most are older employees who gained legal status as a result of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, which granted amnesty to illegal immigrants who entered the U.S. before Jan. 1, 1982.

Tappan believes that if he had not been using E-Verify, he would have lost many more employees. "It would have been devastating," he says.

To help protect yourself and your organization, contact Form I-9 Compliance, LLC at 949-640-4949 to provide a voluntary I-9 audit of your records, so you know exactly where the issues are and how you can resolve them.  "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure."

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