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'I Survived an I-9 Audit'

September 8, 2011
By: Catherine Merlo, Dairy Today Western and Online Editor google + 
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Though he lost 10 employees after an ICE “silent raid,” Arizona Dairy Co.’s Ross Tappan says it could have been much worse.  

An Arizona dairy learns firsthand about ‘silent raids’

"ICE just showed up."

Arizona dairy producer Ross Tappan was attending a United Dairymen of Arizona meeting in Tempe last April when that text message from his office manager appeared on his mobile phone.

Tappan didn’t panic. He finished the meeting and then drove to his 6,300-cow dairy near Mesa, 25 miles away.

By the time he arrived, the two U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents—whose visit had lasted just five minutes—were gone. But their directive had been clear: They would return in 72 hours to collect three years’ worth of I-9 forms and other employee documents from the dairy.

That day marked the beginning of a month-long ordeal that eventually cost Tappan 10 of his dairy’s 90 employees—more than 10% of his work force.

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But Tappan believes he was lucky—in a way. The ICE agents didn’t conduct the kind of raid that routs and removes workers on the spot, leaving a dairy with no one to milk or feed its cows. Moreover, as an employer in a state that’s taken a hard-line stance against illegal immigration, Tappan was already one step ahead.

"We’d been preparing for an I-9 audit for three years," he says. "We kind of expected it."

An I-9 audit, often called a "silent raid," involves a thorough ICE inspection of a business’s employee documents, principally I-9 forms and payroll information. The goal is to ensure that employees are legally authorized to work in the U.S.

To meet this goal, the government launched an electronic employee verification program in 1997. It was expanded to all states and the District of Columbia in 2004, and is now called E-Verify. Operated by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Social Security Administration, E-Verify is an Internet-based system that checks Social Security numbers to verify whether a person can legally work in the U.S.

Nationwide, more than 269,000 employers at more than 900,000 work sites are enrolled in the E-Verify program, DHS says.

While E-Verify isn’t federally mandated, a handful of states, including Arizona, require its use. At Tappan’s dairy, that was enough to spur office manager Elaine Lynch into action three years ago.

"She was adamant that we implement E-Verify," recalls Tappan, general manager of Arizona Dairy Co. "With hindsight, I’m glad we did."

Working with an immigration attorney, Tappan and Lynch conducted a self-audit before implementing E-Verify in 2008. The dairy’s inspection revealed dozens of employees with improper documentation. Tappan was forced to lay off several who couldn’t substantiate their work eligibility. The internal review reassured him that his dairy had verified its work force and that his office staff had learned how to react if ICE agents ever appeared at the dairy.

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Elaine Lynch, right, was adamant that Arizona Dairy Co. implement E-Verify three years ago.

"With hindsight, I’m glad we did," says Ross Tappan, left. PHOTO: Catherine Merlo

After the ICE visit last April, Tappan and his staff went to work pulling more than 200 I-9 forms that the dairy had on file from the past three years. Much of their time was spent copying those originals as well as other requested documents, including payroll information, business licenses and paperwork on employees who were no longer employed.

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FEATURED IN: Dairy Today - September 2011

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