ICE Audits Nearly 80 Northern California Companies: Lawmakers, Advocates Respond

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About 70 people gathered in protest on Feb. 2, 2018, outside of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement processing center and immigration court at 630 Sansome St. in San Francisco to protest workplace audits served on several dozen Northern California businesses earlier in the week. (JoeBill Muñoz/KQED)

California representatives in the U.S. House and Senate say immigration enforcement audits served on several dozen businesses in the Bay Area and surrounding region this week indicate the federal government is illegally targeting the state.

"I’m deeply troubled by this Administration’s efforts to punish California, and direct limited resources towards targeting hard working undocumented immigrants who do not pose a threat to public safety," Sen. Kamala Harris said in a written response to widespread I-9 audits initiated in Northern California Monday through Wednesday this week.

"While law enforcement should prioritize dangerous criminals, widespread raids will result in the deportation of those who are living lawful lives and will erode public safety in immigrant communities," Harris said.

Characterizing the workplace audits as "raids" may be a stretch, according to immigrant advocacy groups and other lawmakers who say the word can generate unwarranted fear. Immigration agents made no arrests in serving audit notices.

The tactic isn't new: I-9 audits have been a tool for federal immigration enforcement since the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986.

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"What is new is the publicity and the political spin that the administration seems to be wanting to put on this," South Bay congresswoman Zoe Lofgren said. "It’s the first time in my memory that a federal law enforcement agency has overtly said they’re taking action based on politics, and that’s a chilling development in a republic."

Homeland Security Investigations conducted 1,360 workplace audits between October 2016 and September 2017, according to a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokesman. They can result in fines or lay a foundation for criminal prosecutions of business owners, according to an agency spokesman, but they can also result in deportation proceedings against employees who are living and working in the U.S. without authorization.

"The actions taken this week reflect [Homeland Security Investigations'] stepped-up efforts to enforce the laws that prohibit businesses from hiring illegal workers," ICE spokesman James Schwab said in a written statement. "HSI’s worksite enforcement strategy is focused on protecting jobs for U.S. citizens and others who are lawfully employed, eliminating unfair competitive advantages for companies that hire an illegal workforce, and strengthening public safety and national security."

California lawmakers say workplace audits are more likely to expose otherwise law-abiding undocumented immigrants than those who pose a criminal threat.

“Public statements by ICE Acting Director [Thomas] Homan indicate that the agency intended to target California, and this week’s raids appear to be the result of those efforts," House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi said in a written statement. "Targeting hardworking immigrants in order to make a political point and punish California does nothing to make us safer.”

Homan has repeatedly criticized California over the "sanctuary state" law that strictly limits the cooperation of local law enforcement with federal immigration authorities when undocumented immigrants are booked into jail for reasons other than immigration enforcement. A day after the law took effect, he said ICE will "vastly increase our enforcement footprint in the state of California."

"California better hold on tight," Homan told Fox News on Jan. 2. "They're about to see a lot more special agents, a lot more deportation officers in the state of California. If the politicians in California don't want to protect their communities, then ICE will."

The audits are a scaled-back version of a planned mass immigration enforcement operation publicized last month by the San Francisco Chronicle, the newspaper reported Friday. Plans changed due to political negotiations over federal legislation that would reform the country's immigration system and address a legal limbo for hundreds of thousands of people brought to the U.S. as children, known as Dreamers. KQED has confirmed that characterization.

"It’s wrong for any politics to be influencing these decisions," South Bay Rep. Ro Khanna said. "The idea that the Trump administration would increase these types of audits or raids or decrease these types of audits or raids based on what Congress is going to do on the Dreamers is just unconstitutional."

Lofgren used similar language to describe Homan's threats of enforcement against California and so-called sanctuary cities in the state, but she said she has no knowledge that political negotiations have impacted specific enforcement operations.

"He threatened to do additional enforcement in areas where legislation that he doesn’t agree with has been enacted," Lofgren said of Homan. "That’s really, I would say unconstitutional, but I doubt that Mr. Homan has ever read the Constitution."

State Assemblyman David Chiu joined approximately 70 people gathered in protest outside an ICE processing center and immigration court in San Francisco Friday afternoon. He said a new state law he authored last year provides some protection from immigration enforcement at workplaces.

"Donald Trump is hopeful that workers are going to quit their jobs and we’re here to say: Do not quit your jobs," he said. "If an employer receives notice of an audit, they’re required to let their workers know, to give notice to their workers, and to let their workers know what information they are providing to ICE."

Lofgren said the state-law mandated notifications could presumably lead some unauthorized workers to leave their jobs.

"If there is somebody with a fake ID, they will quit and find another job," Lofgren said. "I don’t know how that helps the American economy, but that’s probably what will happen. They’ll go down the road to work at a different restaurant."

ICE declined to specify which businesses it plans to audit, although some were reportedly restaurants. The agency served businesses in Sacramento, San Jose and San Francisco, among other Northern California cities, according to a spokesman.

A restaurant owner in San Francisco's Mission District said he did not receive an audit notification, but his business has been hurt by rumors of widespread immigration enforcement.

"My clients are primarily Latino, and they're afraid," he said in Spanish. KQED is not publishing the restaurant's name or location because it could lead to targeting from immigration officials.

"People are scared to eat because of the rumors that they're targeting the Mission," the restaurant owner said, adding that he's unsure what he would do if ICE takes an interest in his business.

"I would say nothing," he said. "The plan we have is to tell people that the owner isn't here right now."

Ted Goldberg and Tyche Hendricks of KQED News contributed to this report. This post includes reporting from the Associated Press.

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