Employers navigating the I-9 employment eligibility verification process for new hires are confronted with a gauntlet of confusing rules, standards, and exceptions to the rules that some have opined are deliberately designed to make the innocuous looking one-page form a magnet for errors. Such cynics cite the year-over-year increases in civil fines being levied by ICE on employers through the continuing national workplace audit campaign the agency is prosecuting as proof of a fatally flawed system.
While the social security number is an optional field on the form according to the latest M-274 Handbook for Employers, the forms will be considered deficient and employers may be subject to fines based on a variety of issues which may appear to be “harmless error” from a common sense perspective, including among others: missing date, signature on the wrong line, notation to “see attached” copies of identification, correct ID data listed in under the wrong list, etc. Employers who have been through the experience of an I-9 audit have become sensitive to the precision required in completing the forms fully, and ICE’s audit and public relations campaigns have conditioned employers to err on the side of completeness in this arena for fear of being heavily fined.
Unfortunately, rules governing I-9 form practice and fines do not focus exclusively on the issue of incompleteness. Employers who fail to walk the legal tightrope of “just enough, but not too much” risk incurring the wrath of the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division Office of Special Counsel for Immigration-Related Unfair Employment Practices (OSC). The DOJ has announced that a public employer has been sued for alleged Immigration–Related Employment Discrimination for too zealously checking the work authorization of foreign employees. The employer allegedly discriminated by dictating what documents a foreign employee must present at hire, contrary to the I-9 rule which mandates that the employee be given a choice of what to present. Similarly, lawful permanent residents were allegedly required to bring in updated work authorization documents when their current “green card” documents expired or they would risk termination, contrary to I-9 work authorization re-verification rules.
The bottom line for employers is that in their management of I-9 employment eligibility verification, keeping the “Goldilocks principle” in mind and treating all employees the same regardless of their citizenship or national origin is key to avoiding liability with either ICE on the one hand, or OSC on the other hand.