Key Issues Discussed at KY Immigration Forum

An immigration forum was held in Lexington March 8.

(Editor's note: No Central Kentucky farm workers have been arrested by Immigration and Customs Enforcement during recent visits. Farm owners had been asked to release any undocumented workers they had employed and the farm complied. A previous edition of this story indicated otherwise.)

The fairly new concept of e-verification for immigration workers was one of the  topics at a March 8 forum hosted by Blue Grass Farms Charities in conjunction with attorneys from Wyatt, Tarrant and Combs in Lexington.

About 40 Central Kentucky Thoroughbred operations were represented at the forum, during which lawyer Glen Krebs of Wyatt, Tarrant and Combs provided an overview of how employers should protect themselves when hiring foreign workers. One of the most effective ways to do so, he said, is through e-verification, a voluntary online employee verification tool that helps determine the accuracy of employment eligibility.

The forum was arranged in light of how the illegal immigration issue has resurfaced in Kentucky this year in the form of a bill that passed the Senate in early January. Even though the Democratic-led House has showed little enthusiasm for the legislation, which would subject employers to felony prosecution for assisting undocumented immigrants, the fact the issue has once again come up proves it’s not going away anytime soon.

Other bills introduced this year in the Kentucky legislature include one that requires “all public agencies” to use the "E-Verify" program, and one that would allow police in Kentucky to ask for proof of legality. Krebs said it's unlikely any immigration laws would change before the next presidential election, though he expects illegal immigration enforcement to expand in the future.

After the forum, Mary Lee Butte, president and chief executive of Blue Grass Farms Charities, disclosed that within the last year, “three large Kentucky Thoroughbred operations” had been visited by federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement. At least one of them faced monetary penalties for employing undocumented workers. The other operations received warnings and terminated their undocumented employees.

Krebs said there are currently 17 ICE inspectors in Kentucky, which isn’t a lot compared with other states, and much of their work is focused on illegal aliens that are already incarcerated. But she warned employers that they must always be prepared in case of a notice of inspection by ICE, which will require all I-9 forms to be examined for possible violations.

I-9 forms are required to be filled out by employers within three days of hiring a new employee in order to verify one’s identity and employment eligibility. The form asks the employer to examine and approve the employee’s Social Security card or birth certificate, as well as another valid form of photo identification.

Krebs said keeping I-9 forms up to date will help employers avoid penalties, and keeping a photocopy of employees’ forms of identification is also beneficial. “Making sure I-9 forms are filled out properly is the best defense you can have as an employer, but it’s not your job to make sure the documents that are shown to you are legitimate,” he said.

To ensure an employee is eligible to work in the United States, the aforementioned E-Verify program can be used. After sending in an employee’s provided identification information, the system will notify the employer of the person’s legitimacy.

“E-Verify is a simple way to protect yourself and ensure the person is eligible to work, but you still have to fill out an I-9 form for every person,” Krebs said.

Several of the farm managers at the forum said they had used the E-Verify program and it had been beneficial to their operations, though the tutorial for using the system is a bit labor intensive.

During the forum, Krebs explained the different monetary penalties for employers if they are investigated by ICE and fail to produce an I-9 form for their employees, or if they are believed to have knowingly hired illegal workers. Monetary penalties for knowingly hiring illegal aliens and continuing to employ those with violations range from $375 to $16,000 per violation, with repeat offenders receiving penalties on the higher end. Penalties for substantive violations, which include failing to produce an I-9 form, range from $110 to $1,100 per violation.

Krebs introduced the new IMAGE program, which is also voluntary and helps companies reduce unauthorized employment and the use of fraudulent identity documents. The program involves enrolling in E-Verify among several other steps, and is a more intensive process, after which a company will become “IMAGE certified.”

Lastly, Krebs explained the types of visas required to hire temporary workers. The most common, a “H2-B” visa, is for employers needing to fill a seasonal need. The visas are only good for 10 months at a time and can be used three times per employee.

Before applying for such visas, however, employers must first advertise locally to make sure there are no Americans willing to do the jobs they need to fill.

Several inquiries were made at the forum about what a person that at has entered the United States illegally but wants to obtain legal status should do. Because the controversial concept of comprehensive immigration reform, which examines ways to legalize existing foreign workers, has not yet been approved in Congress, Krebs said the only option is for that person is to return to his or her home country and apply for a visa.

Technically, a person is required to wait 10 years to return to the U.S. if he or she came to the country illegally; however, a waiver application can be filled out by a lawyer to try and speed up the process.