VISALIA, Calif. -- David Cox was at his desk in September, 2009, when his receptionist announced an unexpected visitor: a special agent from Immigration and Customs Enforcement, also known as ICE.
Mr. Cox is chief executive of L.E. Cook Co., a fourth-generation, family-owned nursery in Visalia that grows deciduous trees and shrubs. The agent informed him he had three days to produce I-9 employment-eligibility forms for all current employees. Mr. Cox said the agent was "pleasant and nonthreatening," but she carried a gun.
L.E. Cook was one of 1,444 businesses to receive an introduction to ICE's stepped-up worksite enforcement program in 2009 -- almost three times the number audited in 2008. Last year, 2,196 businesses were audited. An ICE representative said the agency did not categorize audits by business type and that the law applied across industries.
"Any company is at risk at any given time," said Leon Versfeld, an immigration lawyer in Kansas City, Mo. In one prominent case, American Apparel, the clothing manufacturer, was forced to terminate 1,800 undocumented workers after a 2009 audit. The Chipotle Mexican Grill chain has let go hundreds of workers since its audit began last year.
While the administration of George W. Bush focused on headline-making raids resulting in arrests of immigrant workers, the Obama Administration has gone after employers with ICE's I-9 audits on the theory that employers hiring unauthorized workers creates demand that drives illegal immigration.
In addition, the Social Security Administration has resumed sending "no-match" letters after a three-year hiatus. The letters, which alert employers that information on an employee's W-2 form does not match information on file with the Social Security Administration, had been halted in 2007.
"The master narrative of immigration reform is being crafted around the notion of unscrupulous employers seeking cheap labor," said Craig Regelbrugge, a lawyer and lobbyist with the American Nursery and Landscape Association.
Unscrupulous employers exist, Mr. Regelbrugge said, but more often he sees business owners who are just trying to follow the law. When a new hire produces seemingly legitimate forms of documentation required by the I-9 form, the employer must accept them.
The upshot of more aggressive enforcement is that even employers who have followed the rules can be hurt by audits that compel them to fire valuable, longtime employees.
The I-9 audit of Mr. Cox's nursery revealed that 26 of his 99 employees were unauthorized to work in the United States. Because ICE determined he acted reasonably in hiring them, Mr. Cox was not fined or held criminally liable. But after confirming that 26 workers could not produce authentic documents, he was forced to fire them. All had been with him five to 10 years, and he lost half of his budding crew, a valuable team that grafts trees. "Telling them was probably the worst day of my life," he said.
Mr. Cox said he was lucky the audit hit midrecession, after he already had cut his workforce and inventory. Still, he estimates that his 2009 expenses rose 10 percent because of the terminations.