Homeland Security agents this week hit dozens of Northern California businesses with a demand they turn over records proving employees are legally entitled to work, putting state employers in the middle of the escalating immigration battle between the state and the federal government.
ICE officials served audit notices on 77 businesses across its San Francisco area of responsibility, which ranges from Bakersfield to the Oregon border and includes Sacramento. The notices come a week after California Attorney General Xavier Becerra warned businesses that they must comply with a new state law protecting worker privacy if confronted with ICE demands for records or access.
That law, the Immigrant Worker Protection Act (AB 450), requires that employers post notices about the federal demand for records within 72 hours of being served, and that those notices be in the languages employers regularly use to communicate with workers. Any unions covering employees also need to be notified.
Once the inspection is complete, employers have to let “affected employees” – those whose documents were found lacking – know of the federal findings.
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Employers who fail to follow the new law could face civil penalties which can range from $2,000 up to $10,000.
“Be aware of this new law because ignorance of the law is no excuse,” Becerra said in an interview with The Sacramento Bee last week.
ICE spokesman James Schwab said the agency would not release the names or details of the businesses targeted, but said it did include restaurants and a “range of businesses mostly unrelated to each other.”
No arrests were made, he said. Businesses have three days to produce the requested I-9 records, which are forms employees are required to fill out before beginning work that confirm legal residency.
In fiscal year 2017, HSI conducted 1,360 I-9 audits and made 139 criminal arrests and 172 administrative arrests. Businesses were ordered to pay $97.6 million in judicial forfeiture, fines and restitution and $7.8 million in civil fines, according to an ICE press release.
Carlos Montes-Ponce with Sacramento Area Congregations Together said a coalition of immigrant rights groups have “heard a lot of rumors (about an ICE operation) and we are trying to verify them.”
Montes-Ponce said the coalition received a phone call to a rapid response hotline that ICE agents were planning to check employee status at the facility run by seed giant Monsanto in Woodland. But a team of legal observers arrived near the facility Thursday morning and no ICE agents arrived. He said the legal observers provided handouts to workers about their legal rights.
Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg said in a statement that his office is working closely with immigration advocates and volunteers “to ensure we are ready to protect anyone who is unfairly targeted or threatened.”
“We are on high alert and are monitoring the situation hour by hour,” the mayor said.