The United States Departments of Homeland Security and Commerce in September will implement new immigration measures intended to improve border security, step up enforcement of immigration laws, streamline existing guest worker programs, and address the failures of the current immigration system, according to the American Horse Council.
The new requirements, which take effect Sept. 14, have ramifications for the horse industry, AHC president Jay Hickey said.
The new regulations are designed to simplify the process of employing aliens under the H-2A and H-2B programs, which may prove beneficial to the horse industry. But the plan to more forcefully pursue enforcement of sanctions against employers for employing alien workers with faulty documents is raising concerns among employers of low-skilled workers. Many employers in the horse industry, such as horse farms, use the H-2A and H-2B programs.
The Bush administration moved ahead with the new rules after the Senate failed to agree on comprehensive immigration reform legislation earlier this summer.
“The immigration system is kind of operating under a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ system,” Hickey said Aug. 15. “This is going to put more pressure on Congress--hopefully--to come up with a comprehensive immigration reform package." He urged those in the horse industry to contact members of Congress and "explain why the industry needs broad immigration reform."
The cornerstone of the new requirements is a crackdown on employers who knowingly hire undocumented workers. Under current law, when employees fill out the required Form I-9, an employer must request documents, including a Social Security card, that confirm an individual’s identity and ability to work in this country.
If an employer has more than 10 employees with inaccurate personal identity information, the Social Security Administration will send a “no-match” letter stating the information submitted doesn’t match records in its database, the Horse Council reported in an industry memo. In addition, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement will send a similar letter to an employer if an audit indicates a document regarding immigration status or employment authorization presented or referenced by the employer in the Form I-9 cannot be confirmed.
Employers who receive such a letter must, within 30 days of receipt, check the information against their own records, correct any errors, and verify them with Social Security or Homeland Security. If the employer finds no errors, it must inform the worker of the discrepancy within 30 days; the worker then has 90 days after the employer received the letter to contact the appropriate agency and correct the information.
If the employee doesn’t resolve the issue during that period, he will have three days to complete new paperwork and provide acceptable documentation. If he does not do so, the employer must immediately fire him or face fines and other sanctions for “knowingly” employing an undocumented alien.
“People in the horse industry and other industries are going to be receiving these letters, and will have to go through the process,” Hickey said. “In four months, the rubber hits the road. It’s going to be a very difficult situation.”
Under the new regulations, fines imposed on employers who knowingly hire illegal immigrants will be raised 25%. (Current fines are $2,200 for the first offense and up to $10,000 for repeat offenses.) The 25% increase is the maximum allowed under current law.
The Bush administration will propose additional regulations to reduce the 29 categories of documents that employers may accept to confirm identity and work eligibility of their employees. The purpose is to eliminate documents most susceptible to fraud.
The administration has directed the Department of Labor to review existing regulations governing the H-2A program and to institute changes intended to provide agricultural employers with an orderly and timely flow of legal workers. In the H-2B program, the department will issue regulations intended to reduce the time for processing applications by moving from a government-certified system requiring the Department of Labor to issue certifications to an “employer-attested” system. That will allow employers to attest they have followed the procedures and couldn’t find willing American workers.
Hickey said the Department of Labor review could take up to a year, which would allow it to “fine-tune and fix issues” that would impact the horse industry. The Bush administration also will explore ways to expedite background checks on alien workers so that visas may be issued more promptly.