In recent years employers have become increasingly aware of the perils of becoming the focus of a federal worksite enforcement investigation. Although the rhetoric has changed under the Obama administration, the resolve appears to be just as strong. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has launched a nationwide effort to investigate the I-9 (employment eligibility verification) forms of hundreds of employers. Special Agents served "Notices of Inspection" to 625 businesses on July 1, 2009, a significant increase over the 503 served by the Bush administration last year. ICE characterizes this as the “first step in [its] long term strategy to address and deter illegal employment.” Rather than conducting random audits, ICE has asserted that its investigations will focus on businesses that knowingly hire immigrants who cannot legally work in the U.S.
Traditionally, employers charged with violating prohibitions on unauthorized employment could count on civil penalties and the administrative fines process often leading to fines ranging from $100-1,000 per violation. However, ICE’s present worksite enforcement strategy is to conduct investigations that will support felony charges and not just the traditional misdemeanor worksite violations. If the evidence gathered supports a federal criminal prosecution, ICE works directly with the U.S. Attorney's Office in subsequent court proceedings. Asset forfeiture is another key component in the ICE strategy to remove the financial incentive to hire unauthorized workers, as is the imposition of money laundering charges, an auxiliary federal crime intended to heighten the seriousness of other specific federal, state, and foreign crimes.
Employers concerned about ICE’s current nationwide investigation and prosecutions are heeding a 2008 statement from the U.S. Attorney prosecuting a Houston doughnut company. The U.S. Attorney noted that “starting soon after the ICE raid, [the doughnut company] upgraded its immigration compliance program and hired a consultant to comply with employment regulations . . . Federal prosecution of the company would have been more severe without this change.”