[Blogger’s note:  Here we go with another guest column from Nicole (Nici) Kersey who offers a witty, wise and worthy post on the inequities and inanities of the worksite enforcement scheme concocted by Congress in 1990, a flawed system of employer deputization of governmental functions largely maladministered by various agencies of the Executive Branch.  Worse yet for employers, the states too are getting into the act.  Witness last week’s California Supreme Court decision, Salas v. Sierra Chemical Co., which held that claims of undocumented workers who present false documentation during the I-9 process are enforceable against employers under state antidiscrimination and worker protection laws , despite the defense of federal immigration-law preemption  — at least until the employer receives notice that the worker is unauthorized for employment.  So the broken enforcement scheme creates ever more headaches and hurdles for employers.]

Baring My Teeth at I-9 Enforcement Inequalities

By Nicole (Nici) Kersey

I admit it.  I know more about quidditch than about soccer.  The World Cup holds little interest for me, aside from the occasional glimpse of impressive Chilean, French, or Honduran abs[1].  (And, lucky for me, I can skip the games and jump to VH1’s “Best Soccer Abs” contest to see the most rippling of 6-packs.)


So as the rest of the world holds its breath while these guys run up and down the field, apparently biting one another and causing Adidas to pull “teeth-baring” ads, I’ve been holed up in my office working and, for fun, binge watching Orange is the New Black.  I read the book before it became a series, but when my nearly 4-year-old daughter asked me (completely out of the blue[2]) – “Mommy, why are you probably going to die in jail?” – I thought I should study up.

The World Cup and the New Black both got me thinking about the assumptions people make based on appearances or accents.  In many ways, soccer and prison are great equalizers.  You can play soccer no matter what your size, gender, citizenship status or national origin.  And in jail, while race, gender, and age may divide inmates more dramatically, those who may never have come into contact on the outside become roommates (at least they do on tv), wear the same clothes regardless of wealth, and eat the same food.

In the immigration world, employers face a number of dilemmas every day, driven largely by the appearance or voice of employees or applicants:

  • When to ask if someone is authorized to work in the U.S.
  • Whether to ask what a job applicant’s immigration status is
  • Whether to refuse to sponsor a visa
  • When to refuse a document presented as proof of work authorization
  • When and how deeply to investigate a tip indicating that a worker or group of workers lacks work authorization
  • Whether to terminate a worker’s employment if the individual comes forward with a new SSN/identity and admits that he was previously not authorized to work
  • What type of document an employee must present to prove work authorization (and whether the employer can specifically ask for that document)

These are just a few examples that lead to seemingly awkward situations in which a recruiter cannot ask the applicant with the great French accent whether he’s from France or Canada; and an HR manager is warned not to tell the new intern that she needs to see his I-20, even when that’s the only document he could possibly present to prove work authorization.   Because of confusion about the proper questions to ask on a job application, employers find themselves rescinding job offers to new hires who turn out to be H-1B employees.

And employers who work hard to ensure equality, making no assumptions based on appearance, native language, a foreign-sounding accent, or citizenship status, face a serious and unjust risk:  if it turns out that those employees lack work authorization, the employer faces a greater likelihood of penalties for Form I-9 paperwork violations and increased fine amounts, even if the employer had no reason to know that the employees were unauthorized.

Under ICE policy, employers who would otherwise receive a Warning Notice for paperwork violations (avoiding fines), must instead receive a Notice of Intent to Fine (NIF) in “instances where unauthorized aliens were hired as a result of substantive paperwork violations.”  While this policy implies that the paperwork violation must have actually caused the employer to hire someone who was not authorized to work, in practice ICE need not prove causation: correlation is sufficient.  (If causation could be shown, one might expect ICE to charge the employer with a knowing hire violation instead of – or in addition to – a paperwork violation.)

Once the employer is on the hook for fines, ICE increases the base fine amount by 5% for each I-9 relating to an unauthorized worker.  (An increase is suggested by the regulations, though no specific percentage is set out.)

This leaves employers, particularly in the construction, hotel, manufacturing, and restaurant industries particularly vulnerable.  They’ve been effectively deputized and asked to enforce the immigration laws.  They are prohibited from discriminating based on citizenship or national origin.  They must accept documentation as proof of identity that reasonably appears to be genuine and to relate to the employee presenting it.  Yet if they make a substantive error on the Form I-9 (such as attaching copies of the employee documentation to the form instead of writing the data in Section 2; or failing to make the employee input his A# in Section 1 of the form), and the employee turns out to lack work authorization, the employer is at a high risk for high-level fines (again, even if the employer did not have any reason to suspect that the employee was not work-authorized).

An employer in another industry (such as the banking or consulting industry) is at a much lower risk, even with a high rate of paperwork errors, simply by virtue of the makeup of its applicant pool and the birthplace of its employees.  The employer is less likely to be inspected by ICE in the first place.  If inspected, it is more likely to receive a Warning Notice for its paperwork violations, and if fined, the fines will be lower due to the lack of unauthorized workers.

In the end, it seems that while employers are prohibited from discriminating, government policy encourages them to do so.

And now … back to the best abs contest, where Chile and Portugal are on even footing with the French.  Though when determining a winner here, I think it’s okay to take a foreign-sounding accent into account.

[1] The Spanish and Portuguese are in the running as well.

[2] Okay, so we took her to see Muppets Most Wanted, which has resulted in a much more detailed discussion of gulags, jails, thieves and burglars than I ever expected to have with my child.