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Audits bringing more fines for hiring illegals

SEATTLE — Immigration and Customs Enforcement reached its highest number yet of companies audited for illegal immigrants on their payrolls this past fiscal year.

Audits of employer I-9 forms increased from 250 in fiscal 2007 to more than 3,000 in 2012. From fiscal 2009 to 2012, the total amount of fines grew to nearly $13 million, from $1 million. The number of company managers arrested has increased to 238, according to ­data provided by ICE.

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The investigations have been one of the pillars of President Obama’s immigration policy.

When Obama recently spoke about addressing immigration reform in his second term, he said any measure should contain penalties for companies that purposely hire illegal immigrants. It is not a new stand, but one he will probably highlight as his administration launches efforts to revamp the immigration system.

‘‘Our goal is compliance and deterrence,’’ said Brad Bench, of ICE’s Seattle office. ‘‘The majority of the companies we do audits on end up with no fines at all . . . If companies know we’re out there, looking across the board, they’re more likely to bring themselves into compliance.’’

While the administration has used those numbers to bolster its record on immigration enforcement, advocates say the audits have pushed workers further underground by causing mass layoffs and disrupted business practices.

When the ICE audit letter arrived at Belco Forest Products, management was not entirely surprised. Two nearby businesses in Shelton, a small timber town near Puget Sound, had already been investigated.

But the 2010 inquiry became a monthslong process that cost the timber company experienced workers and money. It was fined $17,700 for technicalities on record keeping.

‘‘What I don’t like is the roll of the dice,’’ said Belco’s chief financial officer, Tom Behrens. ‘‘Why do some companies get audited and some don’t? Either everyone gets audited or nobody does. Level the playing field.’’ Belco was among 339 companies fined in fiscal 2011.

Employers are required to have workers fill out an I-9 form that declares them authorized to work in the country. Currently, an employer needs only to verify that identifying documents look real.

The audits, part of a $138 million worksite enforcement effort, rely on ICE officers scouring payroll records to find names that do not match Social Security numbers and other identification databases.

An AP review of audits that resulted in fines in fiscal year 2011 shows the government is fining industries reliant on manual labor that historically have hired immigrants.

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