Director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) John Morton has announced record numbers of worksite enforcement investigations, criminal prosecutions, and administrative-fine-awards for FY2011.

As the investigative arm of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, ICE’s primary mission is to promote homeland security and public safety through the criminal and civil enforcement of federal border control, customs, trade, and immigration laws.

As a primary part of its immigration enforcement effort ICE has targeted employers that recruit, hire, and continue to employ unauthorized foreign nationals. ICE’s comprehensive worksite enforcement strategy is focused on deterring unlawful employment. ICE believes its increased investigative activity will have the effect or driving all employers toward instituting fairly conservative standard operating procedures to cultivate a culture of compliance with the nation’s immigration-related employment laws. In testimony before the House Committee on the Judiciary, Subcommittee on Immigration Policy and Enforcement, Morton indicated that the Administration is focused on conducting criminal investigations and prosecuting employers who exploit the verification system or abuse their employees.

As of September 17, 2011, ICE instituted 3,015 administrative/criminal investigations—a 54% increase over FY2008. In FY2010, ICE arrested and criminally prosecuted 196 owners, HR managers, and executives—a 45% increase over FY2008. ICE refused to release statistics on those employers subject to potential criminal prosecution who negotiated with ICE or U.S. Attorneys to enter into deferred prosecution agreements.

In FY2011, ICE issued a record 2,393 Notice of Inspection (for federal Forms I-9 and supporting documents), a more than 375% increase from that issued in FY2008.

ICE has issued 331 final administrative fine orders in FY2011, totaling more than $9 million in fines levied on employers (it issued to 18 final orders in FY2008, totaling $675,000 in fines). In addition, FY2010 worksite investigations resulted in a record $36.6 million in judicial fines, forfeitures, and restitution.

“Enforcing our immigration priorities and obligations is neither simple nor easy, and we are committed to getting it right. We all agree that we need fair, consistent, and enforceable immigration laws that encourage the free flow of commerce while respecting both security and the rights of individuals,” Morton said.

Employment verification compliance requirements are onerous, but employers must remain vigilant. Employers with multi-state locations also must consider supplemental state verification compliance requirements. To the extent that ICE must review an employer’s Forms I-9 prior to coming to a conclusion about the rate of employment of unauthorized foreign nationals, all employers are at risk. Now is the time to minimize exposure.