LENEXA, KANSAS - Chipotle Mexican Grill, Inc., was a recent target of a federal crackdown on immigrant labor that forced the company to fire hundreds of allegedly illegal workers this week, perhaps more than half of its employees in Minnesota.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) asked Chipotle for I-9 information on employees at its 50 restaurants in Minnesota where the company employs 1,200 workers. The I-9 forms prove whether employees are eligible to work in the United States, and Chipotle workers who could not resolve questions about the forms were dismissed. The ICE review has now spread to 60 of Chipotle's restaurants in Virginia and Washington, D.C.

Chipotle is a recent high profile target of ICE, but the federal agency has audited more than 3,200 employers the past two years who are suspected of hiring illegal workers. ICE enforcement actions are drawing political attention during this new session of Congress as legislators seek to close loopholes created by the I-9 process.

House Republican leaders say they are examining new ways for employers to check on the immigration status of employees, and the House Judiciary Committee's immigration panel held a hearing on the issue this week. Rep. Elton Gallegly (R-Calif.), chairman of the immigration panel, supports an E-Verify program, and says he plans to introduce legislation to mandate the use of E-Verify within the next month. E-Verify is already mandatory for government agencies and contractors, and is used voluntarily by nearly 250,000 businesses.

Many farm organizations and others are critical of the mandatory E-Verify program because they believe it could destabilize the agricultural economy, which is heavily dependent on undocumented immigrants, and jeopardize millions of jobs held by American citizens that are upstream and downstream of farm labor.

E-Verify supporters, however, say the program ensures that jobs are occupied only by U.S. citizens and immigrants who are legally authorized to work.

Gallegly says "making (E-Verify) universally mandatory would ease the cumbersome and easily manipulated I-9 process employers now use to screen employees. It would also greatly reduce the number of illegal immigrants in the American workforce."

The I-9 form requires documentation, such as a Social Security number, which does not necessarily present an obstacle to illegal workers. The E-Verify system allows employers to run the information through a federal database to confirm it or identify people who are not legally authorized work in the U.S.

It is believed that three out of every four farm labor jobs are held by undocumented immigrants. Removing those illegal workers would create a ripple effect throughout the farm economy that would affect many legal workers and U.S. citizens, according to critics of E-Verify.

"Every lowly, backbreaking farm-working job sustains three jobs in the non-farm economy, says Craig J. Regelbrugge, vice president of the American Nursery & Landscape Association. "What Congress needs to know is we have 1.6 million dedicated farm workers, and if they go away, we will lose several million American jobs upstream and downstream. We happen to think that is too high a price."

Regelbrugge believes any E-Verify expansion that comes without meaningful immigration reform would be disastrous for American agriculture. "It will leave the United States importing food and exporting jobs."

Even if E-Verify becomes mandatory, the Government Accountability Office says ICE does not have the ability to enforce such a law. ICE estimates that the agency can deport about 400,000 people per years under its current funding, leaving millions of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. Richard Stana of the GAO says, "They don't have the resources now to enforce the I-9 system, much less E-Verify."

Dismissals at companies such as Chipotle due to I-9 issues indicate a system that is not working, according to company spokesman Chris Arnold. Employers are forced to walk a tight rope between vigorously screening applicants to make sure they are legal without discriminating against potential employees. Nationwide, Chipotle has more than 25,000 employees at more than 1,000 locations.

SOURCE: Drovers/Cattlenetwork