* ICE agents descend on 1,000 U.S. businesses
* Audits target critical infrastructure, key resources
(Adds fresh quotes)
By Lisa Baertlein and Jeremy Pelofsky
LOS ANGELES/WASHINGTON, June 15 U.S. federal
immigration agents on Wednesday began issuing inspection
notices to some 1,000 employers deemed critical to keeping the
nation's food, energy and infrastructure safe.
The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency
declined to identify which companies were targeted in its
expanding crackdown on hiring of illegal workers.
But the agency said they included small businesses as well
as name brands in 17 sectors of the economy, including
agriculture and food, financial services, commercial nuclear
reactors, drinking water and water treatment, postal and
shipping, healthcare and transportation.
"The inspections will touch on employers of all sizes and
in every state in the nation, with an emphasis on businesses
related to critical infrastructure and key resources," ICE said
in a statement.
The agency said the focus on businesses tied to critical
infrastructure was part of the agency's mission to focus on
threats to national security and public safety. A similar audit
on such industries was done in November 2009.
The new audit notices from ICE coincided with a move in
Congress to require all U.S. employers to adopt a government
screening program designed out to ferret out illegal workers.
Michael Wildes, an immigration lawyer at Wildes & Weinberg
in New York, said he was retained by a company minutes after
ICE agents showed up there on Wednesday. He declined to name
his client or specify the industry in which it operates.
He suggested Wednesday's move was politically motivated.
"There's an election around the corner, there are scores of
people who are finally seeing that the deafening silence in
Washington on immigration needs to be dealt with," he said.
"Sending out a message like this is a good talking point
and looks pretty on TV, but effectively doesn't do anything,"
Wildes said, adding that he understood 28 companies in New
Jersey alone were singled out by ICE on Wednesday.
The enforcement action came a day after U.S. Representative
Lamar Smith, a Texas Republican and chairman of the House
Judiciary Committee, introduced a bill that would require all
U.S. employers to use the government's E-Verify system.
E-Verify is an online system that uses data from U.S
Department of Homeland Security and Social Security
Administration records to confirm whether prospective employees
are eligible to work.
Smith said broad adoption of E-Verify would help ensure
that jobs are reserved for citizens and legal workers.
The issue of immigration is expected to play a major role
in the 2012 election in which President Barack Obama and his
Republican challengers are seeking the pivotal Hispanic vote.
The House Judiciary subcommittee on immigration policy and
enforcement held a hearing on Smith's bill on Wednesday. It was
not immediately clear whether the legislation would advance.
Participation in E-Verify is voluntary for most companies,
but there are exceptions. The program is mandatory for most
employers in Arizona and Mississippi under state law, and U.S.
regulations require firms with federal contracts or
subcontracts to use the system.
The U.S. Supreme Court recently endorsed an Arizona law
requiring employers to use E-Verify.
Immigrant rights groups and unions are among E-Verify's
most vocal critics, and government officials acknowledge that
the system has room for improvement. An undocumented individual
who steals the identity of a U.S. citizen would not be flagged
by the network, for example.
"The idea that this E-Verify bill will protect workers and
offer more jobs to unemployed Americans is hogwash," said
Jorge-Mario Cabrera, spokesman for the Coalition for Humane
Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles (CHIRLA).
During its immigration audits, ICE inspectors review hiring
records to find out whether the businesses have violated U.S.
employment laws by hiring undocumented workers.
Critics of the government's focus on enforcement say it
adds burdensome costs and the threat of business disruption
without providing any long-term solutions.
"Employers are bearing the burden of Congress refusing to
act in a more comprehensive way on immigration reform," said
Eleanor Pelta, a partner in the Washington office of Morgan,
Lewis & Bockius and incoming president of the American
Immigration Lawyers Association.
The latest ICE action brings the total number of workplace
audits for this fiscal year to 2,338, surpassing the previous
year's total, ICE said.
Ray Gilmer, spokesman for the United Fresh Produce
Association, said ICE audits of farm employers have been on the
rise for months.
"The introduction of mandatory E-Verify legislation
Tuesday, combined with the heightened level of audits, presents
a serious threat to farms around the country," he said.
(Editing by Xavier Briand)