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Minnesota illegal worker firings illustrate immigration reform tactical shift

MINNEAPOLIS

The firing of hundreds of Chipotle restaurant workers in Minnesota offered a dramatic glimpse into new trends in immigration reform.

Instead of raiding businesses and hauling away illegal workers, federal agents now study their paperwork. If the "I-9s" aren't in order, agents demand that employers keep only those employees who can prove they belong in this country. The change in strategy has resulted in a spike in actions against employers across the country, according to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

In fiscal year 2010, the agency criminally charged a record-breaking 180 owners, employers, managers or supervisors, up from 135 in 2008 and 114 in 2009. ICE also conducted more than 2,200 I-9 audits, compared to more than 1,400 in 2009.

Those actions have led to nearly $7 million in fines to companies in 2010, compared to $1 million the year before.

Federal officials say the new approach is less heavy-handed and puts more emphasis on employers ensuring that they have a legal workforce. But it's still an approach that is heavy on enforcement, and employers and fired workers alike complain that they're paying the price for a strategy that they say doesn't address real reform.

The workers are not arrested or deported. Most are simply fired. That, workers' advocates contend, does little to solve the problem of illegal immigration because workers often just move on to the next job, and the cycle repeats itself.

"We want to end illegal immigration. The question is how do you do it? Does this do it? Absolutely not," said Javier Morillo, president of Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 26, which has protested on behalf of the fired workers.

Attorney DeAnne Hilgers, who works with employers to get their paperwork in order, said advocacy groups and business leaders recognize the need for real reform. "Both recognize that what we have is not working," she said.

ICE cracking down

In 2009, ICE changed its strategy from rounding up illegal workers in workplace raids to a quieter approach of auditing I-9 forms against Social Security and immigration records.

Employers are now required to ask for, review and keep paperwork -- I-9 forms -- on file for every worker that shows they are eligible to work in the United States.

"An effective, comprehensive worksite enforcement strategy must address employers who knowingly hire illegal workers in order reduce the demand for illegal employment and protect employment opportunities for the nation's lawful workforce," said ICE spokesman Shawn Neudauer.

Employers can avoid trouble, Neudauer said, by participating in programs such as ICE's IMAGE program or E-Verify by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which allow employers to quickly check their employees' records against federal records online.

Morillo questions how much pain employers really feel. Chipotle quickly replaced the estimated 700 Minnesota workers it fired in December without missing a beat, he said.

"It's only the employees who are paying the price," he said.

Maria, who would not give her full name or say if she is here illegally, said she worked at the Lake Calhoun Chipotle for six years before she was fired without explanation on Dec. 13.

She and 13 co-workers at the one store were fired, she said, despite the fact they'd helped it win awards for customer service. They even worked overtime to train their replacements, although they didn't know it then. "Why did they let us work for so many years without it being a problem?" she said. "Now, suddenly, it's a problem."

Hilgers said that employers are paying a price in time and money and personnel needed to make sure documentation is in order. For companies in agriculture, food service and hospitality industries, where ICE has focused much of its attention, it is especially important. Mistakes can lead to fines and, worse, criminal penalties.

"This personally hurts people on both sides," she said.

Untenable system

John Keller of the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota agreed, saying "ghost" costs for employers -- hiring lawyers and adding to human resources departments -- is jacking up the cost of doing business. At least it is for companies that follow the law.

Other employers, just like many displaced illegal workers, go underground, paying workers in cash and avoiding taxes. Even people on opposite ends of the political spectrum agree that something has to change, Keller said.

"We can agree, and I think this is an important thing for the people of this state to understand: The status quo is doing no one any favors," he said.

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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