San Diego restaurant grapples with I-9 indictment

Last month, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) announced that a federal grand jury had indicted a San Diego restaurant and French bakery, along with its owner and manager, for engaging in a pattern or practice of hiring and continuing to employee unauthorized workers and making false statements on I-9 forms. As reported in the LA Times today, the indictment alleges that managers hired undocumented workers to work at The French Gourmet, Inc., while certifying (on their I-9 Forms) that the employees were authorized to work. The indictment goes on to state that when the company later received “no match” letters from the Social Security Administration, it ceased paying those individuals by paycheck (using cash instead) until new I-9 forms were later completed (fraudulently, according to the indictment). The owner and manager now face a maximum of five years in prison per count, a $250,000 fine per count, and three years of supervised release. The indictment also seeks to seize the restaurant, since it was used in a crime. The case has attracted extensive local media attention – not because it involved officers breaking down doors or rounding up unauthorized workers (which actually happened in 2008), but rather because it is the latest example of the “quiet immigration raid” against employers. Starting last year in April 2009, ICE has been engaged in a bold new I-9 enforcement initiative, targeting employers across the nation for major (or minor) I-9 issues. Speaking recently about this initiative, Assistant Secretary of ICE John Morton continues to stress the importance of going after individual employers. “We are doing this across the country in every state in the nation, calmly, methodically and with purpose.” The numbers are adding up: during the most recent fiscal year (which still has 4 months to go), ICE has fined 109 companies a total of about $3 million, up from $675,000 in fines against 18 companies in fiscal year 2008. The number of employer arrests has also increased. In addition to the ongoing scrutiny, this case also reminds employers of the importance of dealing with social security no-match letters. These letters (sent by SSA to report discrepancies in W-2 wage reportings) not only put ICE on notice that there might be an issue, they can also be used as proof of the employer’s “knowledge” of unauthorized employment.   As far as the French Bakery is concerned, the court battle continues. According to the latest filings, a Motion Hearing/Trial has been set for July 12, 2010. Stay tuned for further updates!