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Amy Taylor

IMAGE Program Gets Employers Off the Hook

The Bush administration has a new dirty little secret.

A new Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) policy is attempting to diminish the surprise factor for employers in workplace raids while still rounding up undocumented workers for detention and deportation. The program offers employers a trade -- we won't march into your workplace unannounced if you will turn over employee documentation so that we can scan it for fraudulent information.

The new program is called the ICE Mutual Agreement Between Government and Employers Program (IMAGE). Under IMAGE, employers hand over I-9 employee eligibility verification documents to ICE and ICE audits these documents and verifies the Social Security numbers of workers. ICE touts the program as one which will "assist employers in targeted sectors to develop a more secure and stable workforce and to enhance fraudulent document awareness through education and training"

What do employees get in the deal? It seems immigrant workers are getting the short end of the stick. Under this scenario, workers are still in the same precarious position of putting their jobs and lives in jeopardy if they attempt to better their own working conditions. However, employers can avoid losing hundreds of workers to ICE raids without any notice by complying with this new low profile program. The word is out that employers are apparently using this new agreement to retaliate against workers who engage in union organizing or otherwise attempt to enforce their rights in the workplace. This way they can weed out workers challenging conditions and replace them in a piecemeal manner rather than suffering devastating economic losses all at once through unannounced workplace raids.

Matthew Allen, the acting deputy assistant director for infrastructure and fraud in the investigations division of ICE said "[t]he upside for those who participate is that they're better equipped to know whether their workforce is legal, and ICE is less likely to be on their doorstep unexpectedly, interfering with their business," But it is clear that employers all too often look the other way and knowingly hire workers who are not here legally. The problem is not that employers do not know whether their employees are legal workers but that they take advantage of this knowledge and exploit their workers for their own bottom line.

Smithfield Packing Co. is a participant in the program. Smithfield officials at their hog slaughtering plant in Tar Heel, N.C. recently fired 75 workers after discovering they had Social Security numbers that did not match government employment records. The Tar Heel plant is not unionized, although a union drive has been underway for 12 years to win representation by the UFCW. The plant has a history of using intimidation and threats as retaliation for organizing efforts.

It is hard to criticize companies threatened with workplace raids for participating in a program that could save them embarrassment and money. However, it seems this program is too easily used for other purposes. Union officials at Smithfield allege that the company agreed to participate in IMAGE in order to submit names of organizers to ICE as an intimidation tactic. A representative of the United Food and Commercial Workers alleges that the company passed on the names and information of "[m]ost of the leaders of a walkout in November."

The workers at the Tar Heel plant did not back down. In response to the firings, thousands of workers at the plant, backed by the union, walked off the job in protest. As a result of the walk-out, the company rehired those workers and gave the workers 60 more days to clear up discrepancies. As a result of that move, at least one anti-immigrant group is calling on the general public to encourage ICE to raid Smithfield.

Not all businesses, however, are jumping on board. Some are hesitant to take on new obligations regarding employee verification. Many argue that until there is immigration reform legislation passed that will allow them to hire the workers they need, they will not volunteer to participate in the IMAGE program. Once again, a near universal call for comprehensive immigration reform is underway to resolve the problems we now face because of a very large exploitable population of workers who are forced to live in the shadows rather than enforce their rights.

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Posted at 1:04 PM, Feb 01, 2007 in Civil Rights | Employment | Immigration | Labor
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