Illegal immigrants' counterfeit documentation can be so plausible that small-business owners may not be able to tell what's legit and what is not, according to an Aug. 4 presentation by U.S. Department of Homeland Security officials. In fact, said Special Agent Darren Vazquetelles, the department itself is barely staying on top of the counterfeit game.
"We're not that far ahead of people with fraudulent documents, so we don't expect you to be either," Vazquetelles told a group of about 40 local business owners and other interested folks at A-B Tech's Enka campus. Titled "Understanding Lawful Employment," the presentation was sponsored by the city of Asheville. It included talks and Q-and-A periods with staffers from Homeland Security and business groups such as the N.C. Society for Human Resource Management.
The heart of the presentation was educating business owners on steps they can take to check employees' legal status, including properly filling out the I-9 form and using the agency's E-Verify database and IMAGE program to verify the legitimacy of documents.
The discussion also touched on the most common mistakes on the I-9 form, such as failing to sign and date it, which can get employers in trouble during an audit.
But the speakers also warned against singling out certain employees for screening. Demanding extra documentation based on skin color, language or nationality amounts to illegal discrimination, said Carol Rovello of the Asheville-based Strategic Workplace Solutions. And employers choosing to use the E-Verify system must submit information on every employee, not just potential immigrants.
The presentation grew out of a request by Council member Carl Mumpower at a City Council meeting back in May. Mumpower, who has alleged that local companies as well as contractors hired by Asheville and Buncombe County are using illegal workers, said he was pleased with the session despite the lack of information on steps municipalities can take to enforce federal immigration policy.
But Craig White of the Asheville-based Center for Participatory Change took the panel to task for failing to address the problem of business owners who knowingly exploit immigrant workers. "It is rampant in Western North Carolina," he asserted.
And in an e-mail later that day, White charged that current immigration law is promoting "racial McCarthyism." The E-Verify system, he continued, is not only fraught with inaccuracies but is used incorrectly and illegally by employers. (Under federal law, E-Verify can be used only to screen new hires, not potential employees.) Discrimination, said White, regularly figures into tips to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, because people report "anyone with brown skin or an accent."
In answer to a question, Special Agent Vazquetelles noted that I-9 audits are typically triggered by tips coming from fired employees, business competitors or even "a city councilman." (In City Council meetings, Mumpower has repeatedly cited the presence of Spanish-speaking workers as evidence of illegal labor.)
Mumpower, meanwhile, told Xpress that he plans to request a future seminar by Homeland Security experts helping business owners identify fraudulent documents.