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All of the 300 workers at Cleveland, Tenn., Jackson Furniture Industries who were flagged by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement as possible unauthorized workers had provided employment eligibility verification documents before they were hired, the company's director of human resources said.
Most applicants provided a Social Security card and a state-issued photo ID, such as a driver's license, before they were hired, Todd DeLuca said. Others presented documents such as U.S. passports or permanent resident cards.
But an audit this month by immigration officials discovered that hundreds of those hired apparently used fake or stolen IDs to get their jobs.
In one of the biggest employee verification audits against a local company by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, about 245 employees at Jackson Furniture in Bradley County lacked proper documents to prove they could legally work in the United States and were either dismissed by the company or left voluntarily after ICE flagged their paperwork.
The audit wiped out almost one-third of Jackson Furniture's 900 workers at the company's three Bradley County plants, even though DeLuca said the company did nothing wrong.
"We process an I-9 just like everybody else," DeLuca said. "We follow the requirements of the state of Tennessee for hiring. We don't discriminate. We take the documents, and if they appear to be reasonably acceptable documents, then we accept them."
In the future, the furniture maker plans to use the federally sponsored E-Verify system to check applicants' documents against a national database.
The ICE audit is in the final stage. Now that documents have been flagged and Jackson Furniture has responded, ICE is reviewing the case to decide whether the company has corrected the problem or whether it should be fined or criminally prosecuted.
ICE cannot release the details of pending investigations, public affairs officer Bryan Cox said. Generally, audits can either be prompted by a tip or be random, he said. He did not say what led to the audit at Jackson Furniture.
And while 245 people lost their jobs because of the ICE audit, most were not arrested. Most were not deported. ICE agents didn't storm the furniture plants with guns and handcuffs. No one was loaded up into school buses.
In fact, many of the workers who used fake documents will be able to continue to live and work in the United States, despite being identified by ICE as unauthorized.
The Obama administration has all but abandoned the guns-blazing raids of the Bush administration in favor of paperwork audits that target the employer, not the unauthorized employees.
"If you're in the country illegally these days, ICE policy is if you're a non-criminal, non-recent border violator, low-level priority type of person, you may not be taken into custody," Cox said. "ICE now puts a premium on priority people with a criminal history."
While the policy lasts, the traditional raids for unauthorized workers -- such as the one at the Chattanooga Pilgrim's Pride plant in 2008 that led to more than 100 arrests -- are basically a thing of the past.
"Rather than go in and take people, ICE goes in and looks at those I-9 papers," Cox said.
It's an approach that critics say takes the teeth out of enforcement.
"What good does it do to fine the employer when the supply of labor just goes down the street and reapplies somewhere else?" said Bob Dane, Federation for American Immigration Reform spokesman. "That's just clown car enforcement."
He said the Obama administration has systematically reduced the power of agencies such as ICE to deport unauthorized workers.
"The fact of the matter is, unless you are an illegal alien with a violent criminal history or you represent a national security threat, the odds of you being deported are basically nil," he said. "They just release the illegal aliens, who go next door and down the street and start all over again. Actual agents and law enforcement showing up has been scrapped in favor of meaningless worksite enforcement with nominal fines."
Since few workers are deported, the paperwork audits lack the family-splitting drama of the Bush-era raids, but they still disrupt communities and families, said Emily Tullis, a policy attorney at the National Immigration Law Center.
"The large-scale, militarized workplace raids left children without parents and were absolutely cataclismic for the small communities that were affected," she said. "In a paperwork raid, you still have heads of families displaced from being able to support their children. If you lose your job, you're less able to function as a consumer."
At Jackson Furniture, many of the employees flagged by ICE as unauthorized were some of the company's highest-producing -- and therefore highest-paid -- factory workers, DeLuca said.
"It wasn't that that population held wages down," he said. "A lot folks who were on that list were high earners. They actually brought the curve up. Everybody made well above minimum wage."
Workers who'd been at the plant for five or six years are now jobless, and have been replaced with new workers from job placement agencies. About 75 percent of the 245 lost positions have been refilled, DeLuca said.
Tullis said that neither paperwork audits nor the traditional employer raids are the right approach. She supports an "earned path to citizenship for folks working in our communities."
But Dane said the answer is in tighter enforcement across the board.
"Here we are rushing headlong into this illegal alien amnesty battle when instead the better solution is simply to enforce the law," he said. "Go after employers who hire. Give them stiff penalties, make it painful, and identify the illegal aliens that are walking in the door and applying."
Enforcement is just one piece of an age-old debate on illegal immigration -- a debate that landed in the national spotlight last week after the U.S. Senate passed a bill Thursday that would both create a path to citizenship and earmark $46.3 billion toward securing the border with Mexico.
The bill will now go to the House, where it would require significant bipartisan support to pass.
In Cleveland, DeLuca said Jackson Furniture is ready to move on from the audit.
"We didn't set out to violate any law; it's something that just should not occur," DeLuca said. "We're excited about going forward. You learn from it. You live and you learn."
Contact staff writer Shelly Bradbury at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6525.