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It's the calm before immigration storm for many Texas businesses

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Posted: Sunday, September 24, 2006 12:00 pm | Updated: 3:16 pm, Wed Aug 15, 2012.

By Don Bolding

Killeen Daily Herald

It's mostly quiet on the southern front right now with regard to immigration law enforcement, but employers who follow trends expect that that won't last long.

They also hope the laws and their applications will be straightened out. In the meantime, they're brushing up on how to comply with requirements beginning to be enforced by a federal agency with the chilly acronym of ICE – the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency, an arm of the Department of Homeland Security.

To that end, the Central Texas Human Resource Management Association, composed mostly of human resources professionals from large companies and other employers in Bell County, invited attorney Jeremy Saenz of Houston to talk to them this week.

Saenz, a partner in the Houston law firm Monty Partners LLP, talked for about an hour and a half about the I-9 employment eligibility certificate that every employee has to fill out. He said it's about to be a hot button, something the officials already knew.

"I hold seminars where we talk for six hours about nothing but the I-9," he said. "We're just scratching the surface here."

The I-9 requires presentation of certain documents that an employer is supposed to examine and record, most often a Social Security card and driver's license, though others are allowed to establish an employee's citizenship and right to work in the United States. Employers keep them in case federal agents want to examine the documents at any point; fines can be levied if they aren't all in order.

The biggest problem in the immigration and naturalization world, besides sloppy record-keeping, is that illegal immigrants from any country may forge the documents, and lawyers get lots of business from employers who discover they have illegal immigrants on their payrolls. Sometimes they've gained considerable seniority and authority.

The biggest problem from the point of view of illegal immigrants is that they'll find it harder to work, and many people consider that a shame.

The factor that applies pressure to employers is "constructive knowledge" of the possibility of fraud. It means that a reasonable person must apply reasonable care in examining documents. If they look good, a reasonable person can't be expected to tell the difference, and if a person is foreign-looking or sounding, the employer risks a discrimination suit in questioning them too closely. But under proposed regulations, the Social Security Administration would send out lists of people whose numbers don't match their records. The employer would have 14 days to get the employee to contact the SSA, and the employee would have 60 days to clear it up with the SSA or lose his or her job.

Enforcement would be pretty universal. And it's not to catch illegal aliens who have become an institution in the U.S. economy; It's to catch potential security threats in the wake of 9/11.

This situation prompted current CTHRMA president Randy Baca of Temple College to label immigration law as the primary issue in human resources right now. He said, "Employers may not realize how many illegal immigrants are working for them. Then ICE will audit them, and they'll go underground and hide it. And they're worried, because the fines for getting caught in error are so hefty." They might have known about discrepancies in Social Security numbers for some time, Baca said, but the new rules are more stringent, and they concern national security, not just immigration rules.

Legislation being considered in Congress, with various measures being debated in the House and Senate, would establish a guest-worker program that would put illegal immigrants on the path to permanent residency and clear up issues of blackmail on the job and inability to get basic services.

Greater Killeen Chamber of Commerce president John Crutchfield acknowledged, "Illegals have been working in this country for many years, and they've become a building block in the economy by offering cheap labor, but nothing's been done to address the legality issue. The country has chosen to cover its eyes, and now we're paying for it. We have to protect both our borders and our business.

"Guest workers," Crutchfield said, "have to have some kind of status. The extreme views are that we ship them all home and prevent their coming back or grant general amnesty and citizenship. The first view just wouldn't work, and the second would invite an unregulated flood. But now we have to find them and define their status."

And get to the point where officials can talk to them. He said there have been some cases where safety inspectors would visit a construction site which would suddenly clear out because workers thought they were the immigration police.

How big an issue is the matter locally? Bell County Democratic Party chairman Arthur Resa says the League of United Latin American Citizens officials refer a lot of applicants for residency and citizenship to attorneys in Austin and San Antonio, because there are more immigration-law specialists there. They believe it's better for cases to be handled in close proximity to a Mexican consulate. But Waco attorney Susan Nelson, one of the few outside the cities that handle immigration law, says it's grown to about 60 percent of her practicev. She said her clients are mostly employers who have discovered valued employees are illegal.

University of Mary Hardin-Baylor sociology professor Jose Martinez said he believes there's a high rate of illegal labor here because of the boom in construction and service sectors of the economy. He and other Hispanic leaders point to the human plight of illegal workers that may get worse if the issue isn't handled right. He said that over $300 billion paid into Social Security by illegal immigrants who have been caught has never been refunded. He also points out that not all illegal immigrants can speak Spanish.

The audits may have an equalizing effect but, he said, "Many thousands of illegal immigrants come from Canada and Europe, and they've had much less of a problem. Many are caught and simply released.

Saenz advised his audience to review all their I-9's and make sure they're all current. "Keep them in a separate, confidential file in a nice binder so that when the auditors come, you can just produce it and smile," he said.

Contact Don Bolding at dbolding@kdhnews.com

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