ICE fines state businesses for workers

Broadway’s famous grocery store and delicatessen Gourmet Heaven was fined nearly $6,000 during the last fiscal year for employing undocumented workers.

On Thursday morning, a press release from the Department of Homeland Security’s Immigrations and Customs Enforcement announced more than $130,000 in fines for 12 Connecticut companies that had hired undocumented employees, including a $5,891 fine for New Haven’s Gourmet Heaven Inc. ICE auditors in a unit known as Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) conducted 18 audits across the state, inspecting employees’ I-9 forms, which certify one’s identity and work eligibility. Local politicians did not dispute that the 12 employers fined had broken federal law, but they took the fines as an indication that comprehensive immigration reform is needed.

“Compliance with I-9 audits is not optional. It is the law,” said Ross Feinstein, a spokesman for ICE. “If you do hire an illegal work force, there are penalties.”

Calabro Cheese Corporation, a family-owned Italian cheese manufacturer located in East Haven, was hit with the largest fine of $45,000 last fiscal year. When reached Thursday afternoon, Rich Kaninski, the general manager, said ICE officials had inspected their I-9 forms a few years ago. The audit revealed some employees “purporting to be citizens” were using stolen Social Security numbers. Kaninski added that taxes withheld for these employees by the Internal Revenue Service had, to his knowledge, not been returned.

Gourmet Heaven’s managers could not be reached for comment on Thursday evening.

When HSI’s new inspection strategy was adopted in 2009 “to reduce the demand for illegal employment and protect employment opportunities for the nation’s lawful workforce,” only one audit was conducted in Connecticut, Thursday’s press release stated. Last year, 14 audits were conducted in the state, but only one company was fined. In the last fiscal year, HSI conducted 18 audits and fined 12 companies.

“These settlements serve as a reminder to employers that HSI will continue to hold them accountable for hiring and maintaining a legal and compliant workforce,” Bruce Foucart, a special agent who runs HSI throughout New England, said in the press release. “My agency will continue to focus its attention on employers that are knowingly employing illegal workers and will continue to target specific industries and businesses known or alleged to hire illegals.”

Foucart stressed the importance of work site enforcement as not only a tool to maintain national security, but also a mechanism to prevent employers from flaunting labor laws to exploit undocumented laborers. In their investigations, HSI searches for evidence of trafficking. If criminal behavior is uncovered, ICE may pursue criminal action through the U.S. Attorney’s Office rather than through fines.

This strategy differs from the Bush administration’s policy of deporting workers, Foucart added, as the Obama administration now focuses on punishing the employer.

This new policy is designed to disincentivize immigrants from coming to the U.S. illegally in search of work, said Diana Enriquez ’13, president of Latino-affiliated advocacy group MeCHA de Yale. She added that the new policy is “less hypocritical” because it also hold employers accountable.

“It protects their dignity because it doesn’t give employers the incentive to just rotate and deport workers as they please,” Enriquez said. “There is a stake in this for employers as well now.”

Feinstein declined to say if any undocumented employees had been deported as a result of the 18 audits in Connecticut.

New Haven has had a contentious relationship with ICE since June 2007, when federal agents raided five households in Fair Haven, without search warrants and sometimes with guns drawn, and detained 29 residents. And this February, city officials worried that Secure Communities, a program which checks fingerprints submitted by local police departments against federal ICE databases, would hinder new attempts at community policing.

“ICE’s aggressive behavior has not served American communities or employers well,” Mayor John DeStefano Jr., said in a Thursday email to the News.

But DeStefano added that he looks forward to emerging bipartisan efforts to reform national immigration policies.

State Senate Majority Leader Martin Looney said Connecticut has attempted to address immigration problems through a state-level DREAM Act, a tuition program for undocumented students who were raised and went to high school in the state. But Looney said more work needs to be done at the federal level.

“We need to move towards a more enlightened policy to provide a pathway to citizenship for immigrants,” Looney added.

The Pew Hispanic Center estimated 11.2 million undocumented immigrants lived in the United States in 2010.

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