Employers Must Focus on Immigration Compliance

January 6, 2010

Pilgrim’s Pride to Pay $4.5 Million as Result of Immigration Investigation

A recent agreement between Pilgrim’s Pride Corporation and the federal government highlights why employers must focus on their immigration compliance efforts or face dire consequences.

On Dec. 30, 2009, the federal government reached a non-prosecution agreement with Pilgrim’s Pride Corporation, one of the country’s largest chicken producers, to resolve an investigation involving the hiring and employment of unauthorized workers. Under the terms of the agreement, Pilgrim’s Pride agreed to pay $4.5 million and adopt more stringent immigration compliance practices. As part of the government’s investigation, 25 unauthorized workers were arrested in December 2007 at plants in Texas, and approximately 338 more were arrested at plants in Texas, Florida, West Virginia, Arkansas and Tennessee in early 2008. See ICE press release, “Justice Department and ICE reach $4.5 million agreement with Pilgrim’s Pride,” Dec. 30, 2009.

The Pilgrim’s Pride investigation is not unique. Over the last few years, a number of companies throughout the country have struggled with the impact of worksite enforcement actions and government investigations related to their compliance with immigration laws.

In addition to the possible criminal penalties including jail time, forfeiture, debarment, and fines (companies penalized as a result of an I-9 inspection can pay $375 – $16,000 for each unauthorized worker), there are numerous significant non-legal consequences of an immigration investigation including adverse publicity and the possible loss of a significant portion of a company’s workforce in a short period of time.

Although the high-profile immigration raids of the Bush administration have been, for the most part, replaced with I-9 investigations by the Obama administration, make no mistake that the I-9 investigation serves the same purpose – garnering evidence regarding problems with the work authorization of employees.

Companies need to be wary of viewing a Notice of Inspection (NOI) as a mere administrative request. What begins as an NOI often results in a criminal investigation. Even under the new administration and with less high-profile immigration raids, immigration cases still make up the majority of all federal criminal prosecutions. For the last two years, more than 50% of all federal criminal prosecutions were immigration cases. See John Schwartz, “Immigration Enforcement Fuels Rise in U.S. Cases,” The New York Times, Dec. 21, 2009.

Employers must take a close look at their immigration compliance program to ensure that it is up-to-date and would withstand government scrutiny. In addition, companies receiving an NOI, or any inquiries from the Departments of Homeland Security, Justice, or Labor regarding their immigration-related policies, need to be aware of the potential consequences, and consult counsel with experience in: (1) our nation’s immigration laws; and (2) responding to and defending companies faced with government investigations.

McGuireWoods offers a unique approach to immigration matters – we draw upon a team of lawyers in various practice areas who collectively have the skills and knowledge needed to address the relevant criminal, immigration, labor and employment law issues. McGuireWoods’ Immigration Practice Team has experience advising companies with regard to immigration compliance and defending companies faced with immigration-related government investigations.