Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) announced in late February that three Valley-based employers — one of which is the City of Weslaco — joined the ICE Mutual Agreement between Government and Employers (IMAGE) program that audits for workers using fake or stolen documents by requiring businesses to undergo employment verification checks.
IMAGE seeks to “reduce unauthorized employment and the use of fraudulent identity documents,” according to the agency’s website. A press release announcing the enrollment of the three employers stated that ICE intends for the program to become “an industry standard.”
Worker and immigrant rights advocates worry the use of the program targets undocumented Rio Grande Valley residents seeking employment without addressing the challenges those without legal status face in finding work to begin with.
By enrolling in the program, businesses agree to enroll in ICE’s E-Verify database and submit to I-9 audits, which determine whether all employees who are not citizens or lawful permanent residents have work visas. Two private businesses have signed on to the program, according to the agency’s press release.
The federal government and all federal contractors are required to use the program and 24 states have mandated that at least some businesses enroll in the program, according to the National Immigration Forum. Over 750,000 employers are enrolled in E-Verify, the forum stated.
La Union Del Pueblo Entero (LUPE) wrote in a statement that “Work and providing for others is a fundamental part of being human. No matter where we were born or the color of our skin, most of us work hard for our families and try to leave things better for those to come. Our immigration and labor processes should honor and reward hard work, not punish it.”
“It is alarming that these businesses would stake their reputation and the wellbeing of their employees on an agency that has routinely violated human and constitutional rights and separated countless families.”
ICE lauded the program in its February release, stating that the agency launched IMAGE in 2006 to identify undocumented immigrants who have joined the work force using fraudulent identification. “Undocumented workers create vulnerabilities in today’s marketplace by presenting false documents to gain employment, completing applications for fraudulent benefits, and stealing identities of legal U.S. workers,” the agency wrote.
In July 2019, LUPE reported that federal agents handed out I-9 audit notices to at least five restaurants located in Brownsville, Port Isabel, and on South Padre Island in an attempt to verify there were no undocumented workers on staff.
Agripina Gomez, a community organizer with LUPE, confirmed last year that several people had stopped going to work out of fear of being detained. According to reports, ICE specified than an I-9 compliance operation is not a raid, but the audits began just weeks after President Donald Trump announced that ICE would be conducting immigration sweeps throughout the country to round up people with deportation orders.
“ICE weaponizes the I-9 process to spread fear in communities. We have seen the massive raids in Mississippi and Ohio that separated hundreds of families and left children waiting at school without a parent to pick them up. And more recently last summer in the Valley, ICE caused alarm in the community when it showed up at Lower Valley businesses requesting I-9s. Many workers stopped showing up to their jobs out of fear their workplace would be raided,” wrote LUPE.
“We can win fair and humane immigration processes and worker protections, just like we won civil rights protections and the 8-hour day in the past. Businesses should decline to collaborate with ICE and instead share immigration and worker rights information with their employees.”
Data published on the E-Verify website listed professional, scientific and technical services as industries with the highest number of participating employers, at 313,916 in June 2018. The number for food and drink services was 202,022, with administrative and support services at 112,961 employers enrolled in E-Verify.
Advocates have raised concerns in the past that E-Verify could create additional barriers for employers and U.S. citizen workers in required to enroll in the database.
A 2005 memo published by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) against the expansion of the E-Verify program, then-known as the Basic Pilot Program, warned that “Building a government-run employment pre-clearance system will be complex, painful, and expensive, and will raise significant privacy issues at every step.”
According to the ACLU’s website, program errors could result in Americans barred from working due to data errors, contributing to wage loss and hurting business productivity. The organization also alleged the system lacked due process rights for those affected by data errors that prevent them from seeking employment.
Asked whether an appeals process was in place, ICE said the agency is able to look into specific cases and documents but specified that inquiries regarding appeals would be directed to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
The ACLU’s 2005 memo stated the quality of forged documents has improved and that E-Verify would fail to identify applicants who simply assumed other identities.
The City of Weslaco did not respond to a request for comment.