By Yvette Armendariz, The Arizona Republic.

The growing spotlight on the role of employers in illegal immigration has some businesses, from restaurants to construction companies and others, scrambling to protect themselves from federal penalties.

They are hiring employment-screening companies to audit employees’ Social Security numbers and doing background checks on new hires. In some cases, employers are turning over all hiring functions to outside firms and seeking help in complying with legal paperwork in hopes that they don’t find themselves at risk of fines or prosecution.

“We’ve found the focus is shifting from wage-and-hour compliance to immigration compliance,” said John Rico, director of human resources for Scottsdale-based National PEO, which provides services including employment screening, payroll and human-resource consulting.

Some background screeners and human-resource consultants report that business has jumped as much as 60 percent in the past three months. They don’t expect a slowdown anytime soon, given U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s recent announcement to crack down on employers who knowingly hire illegal immigrants. The agency seeks to fine and prosecute businesses that blatantly ignore hiring laws.

In Arizona, as many as 40 agents may be added to help with work-site enforcement, which has been scant in recent years. Just 30 employers statewide have been fined for hiring undocumented workers over the past 12 years.

Nationally, work-site-enforcement arrests declined from 2,849 in 1999 to 445 in 2003, according to an August report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office. Notices of intent to fine employers declined from 417 in 1999 to just three in 2004.

Several employment screeners said they expect to step up marketing of their services or add services to help business make a good-faith effort to avoid hiring undocumented workers.

“What is a good-faith effort is becoming more stringent and time-consuming for employers,” said Anne Caldwell, president of Phoenix-based Outsourcing Solutions, a human-resource strategy firm.

The general attitude had been that if an employer looked at a document and felt that it was legitimate, then that was good enough. But today, human-resource specialists are cautioning that more documentation will be required to show a good-faith effort.

Kevin Klimas, president of Clarifacts Inc., an employment-screening company in Phoenix, is closely watching the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the Social Security Administration in anticipation of new guidelines for employment verification.

“Employers are starting to prepare for a change,” he said.

Just what that will entail is difficult to say, but he does note that he’s getting more questions about I-9 forms used to determine employment eligibility.

Business groups say most employers make a good-faith effort to comply. The problem is that few have the document experts and systems to check the validity of Social Security numbers.

“You can legally hire an illegal alien because you’ve done everything you are legally required to do because if you take it a step farther, then it’s racial” discrimination, said Mark Minter, executive director of the Arizona Builders’ Alliance, which represents contractors.

“Technology makes it easy to fool even law enforcement agents on what is a real document and a fake one,” he said.

Human-resource experts hope to help improve employers’ good-faith efforts. In many cases, employers simply don’t know or understand their legal obligations for verification and they are often sloppy about record keeping.

Reverse-osmosis company Aqua Chill hired National PEO a few years ago to oversee payroll and keep an eye on employment verification. It’s a good thing, said office manager Crystal Goodwin, because the company’s expertise isn’t in employment documentation. National PEO regularly audits the I-9 forms, which gives Goodwin confidence that the company’s employment-screening efforts would pass muster if they were to face a federal or state check.

State legislators are pushing for increased checks, too. They are working on legislation to penalize employers who knowingly hire undocumented workers.

The increased federal enforcement is unlikely to scare non-compliant companies, said Tom Fraker, executive director of the Arizona Small Business Association.

“The odds of getting caught are (still) remote,” he said. Many employers are desperate to fill labor-intensive jobs paying between $8 and $12 an hour, he said, and they won’t hesitate to hire with minimal checks so that work isn’t interrupted.

But he thinks that last week’s announcement may marginally help improve compliance.

“Even though the number of enforcers are few and far between, they’ll scare enough people to do what’s right,” he said.

Please Note: Information and resources provided by Clarifacts are for educational purposes only and should not be construed as, or a substitute for, legal advice. Employers should consult legal counsel about their specific compliance responsibilities under federal, state and local laws and any other applicable legal and regulatory requirements.

About the Author

Kevin Kilmas

Kevin Klimas

Kevin Klimas is the president and founder of Clarifacts, an employment background screening company serving conscientious clients for nearly 20 years. As a founding member and former board member of the Professional Background Screening Association (PBSA), Kevin is outspoken about screening the right way. In fact, he speaks on this topic at HR conferences and in various media outlets, sharing his enthusiasm for helping others understand all things background checks. Kevin is a member of SHRM and holds a Fair Credit Report Act Advanced Certification from PBSA. He has a Bachelor of Science in criminology and criminal justice from Arizona State University (Forks Up!) and has nearly completed his quest to visit every Major League ballpark