Thursday, Nov. 24, 2011 | 2 a.m.
Las Vegas restaurateur Justin Micatrotto has embraced a new program linking federal immigration officials with businesses throughout the country to reduce the hiring of undocumented workers.
The goal: increase employer verification of the citizenship status of new hires without the heavy hammer of workplace raids conducted by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency, or ICE.
“You have a responsibility as a business owner to make sure you’re going through all the reasonable expectations before you put a person on the floor,” said Micatrotto, co-owner of five Raising Cane’s fast-food restaurants in Las Vegas. “On a pessimistic side, you can view it as having the federal government involved in your day-to-day operations. On the other, you can say it’s an additional safeguard for making sure that paperwork and documentation are properly done.”
Participating employers are required to enroll in the federal E-Verify program, submit to an ICE audit of I-9 forms that new employees fill out, establish a written hiring and employment verification policy that includes a yearly internal audit, and sign a partnership agreement with ICE, the Associated Press reported.
In return, employers can avoid workplace raids — and the harsh penalties that can come with them — while fostering an atmosphere of cooperation with the government.
The Obama administration has cracked down on employers as part of its immigration enforcement policy, but officials have emphasized employer audits more than the high-profile workplace raids done during the Bush administration.
In fiscal year 2011, the agency reportedly conducted 2,496 I-9 audits, up from 2,196 the previous year and far above the 503 in fiscal year 2008. ICE initiated 3,291 worksite enforcement cases in fiscal year 2011, versus 1,191 in fiscal year 2008, the AP reported.
The restaurant, hotel and retail sectors are traditionally targeted by such enforcement efforts because of their history of hiring undocumented hourly wage workers. Representatives of Strip giants MGM Resorts International and Caesars Entertainment did not return phone calls seeking comment about the program known as IMAGE, or ICE Mutual Agreement between Government and Employers.
Las Vegas labor and employment lawyer Pat Lundvall argues that the effort reflects a greater push for the joint enforcement of workplace laws and regulations that have been adopted by the federal government, but she believes such programs have not significantly reduced aggressive enforcement efforts.
“I think you’re actually seeing less publicity about them,” said Lundvall, who works for the Reno-based law firm McDonald Carano Wilson. “They’re still going on, but nobody’s trying to broadcast them to scare other workers.”
Micatrotto, chairman of the Nevada Restaurant Association, is about to open a second restaurant in the Phoenix area, giving him 257 employees between Southern Arizona and Southern Nevada. His company will have an employee spending much of the next two weeks checking the immigration status of an anticipated 800 job applicants, some of whom may hold forged Social Security cards and federal immigration papers. One key method for checking their veracity: asking job applicants to repeat all of their personal information on their paperwork without having the documents in front of them.
“All we can do is make sure we’re taking the information down properly, then the onus is on the government,” Micatrotto said.