The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) recently entered into a settlement agreement with three staffing companies in the Memphis, Tennessee area. DOJ’s investigation discovered that each of the companies rejected the employment of two qualified individuals based on them being born in Puerto Rico. Specifically, the employers refused to accept each individual’s valid Puerto Rican birth certificates, mistakenly believing that Puerto Rico is a foreign country, and they engaged in document abuse by requesting each individual’s U.S. naturalization certificates to evidence their U.S. citizenship status. Puerto Rico is a U.S territory, and those born in Puerto Rico acquire U.S. citizenship at birth. The Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) prohibits discrimination in hiring based on perceived or actual citizenship status, as well as placing additional documentary burdens upon an individual based on these criteria. Pursuant to the terms of the settlement agreement, the staffing companies agreed to pay lost wages as well as civil penalties. The companies also agreed to be subject to monitoring of their employment verification practices by the DOJ for two years, which is standard practice in these types of settlements with employers.
Within the DOJ, the Office of Special Counsel for Immigration-Related Unfair Employment Practices is responsible for the enforcement of the anti-discrimination provisions in the INA. The INA prohibits, among other things, discrimination in recruitment, hiring, and termination based on citizenship and national origin. As government enforcement of anti-discrimination and other compliance-related provisions has risen significantly over the last two to three years, employers are advised to conduct regular trainings with Human Resources personnel to ensure compliant employment verification practices. Employers are reminded that it is unlawful to ask an individual for specific documentation when verifying his or her employment eligibility for I-9 purposes. Should an individual ask what documents he or she must present when completing the I-9 form, employers shouldn’t indicate a preference and instead provide the individual with a copy of the List of Acceptable Documents on the back of the I-9 form.