Leigh Miller for GlobalAtlanta
Companies now have another system to mitigate their risk of hiring illegal immigrants and to prove to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency that they are in compliance with immigrant employment verification laws, according to Robert Banta, an Atlanta immigration attorney.

As of July 26, employers can use the voluntary ICE Mutual Agreement between Government and Employers (IMAGE) system to verify that their employees are legally authorized to work in the United States.

The IMAGE system is an addition to the existing Basic Pilot Program that involves training companies’ payroll administrators on an online system that verifies that new hires’ social security numbers, names and visas match up.

If a company wants to become IMAGE certified, it must agree to an audit of its I-9 forms for all employees and verify all of its employees’ employment eligibility electronically though the Basic Pilot Program, plus engage in various compliance best practices. The IMAGE program includes a self-reporting mechanism for hiring violations, plus a telephone tip line that interested parties can call to report possible illegal hiring practices.

The IMAGE program is an extra precaution employers can take, although it is still not a fool-proof method for preventing the employment of illegal immigrants, Mr. Banta said.

“The bottom line is that it’s yet another way that employers will be able to check online and determine whether a job applicant is authorized to work in this country. It’s generally a good thing,” Mr. Banta told GlobalAtlanta.

“The major problem with compliance, however, is that there is a large number of documents job applicants can use, and employers are unfamiliar with those documents,” he said. Various employment eligibility forms such as the I-9 immigration form could be falsifiable, and employers may not be able to discern whether other immigration documents are valid or not, he added.

The Basic Pilot Program has become somewhat more popular among employers since April this year when ICE made it a criminal, rather than civil, offense to hire illegal immigrants, Mr. Banta said.

“It’s a good system, but it wasn’t being used by a lot of employers because it’s voluntary and until recently most employers figured wasn’t worth the trouble,” he said. “Now a lot more are interested in this and the new IMAGE program because of the fact that the immigration service is now more aggressive on enforcement.”

Georgia companies will presumably increasingly join the IMAGE program because of a spike in government enforcement actions recently, Mr. Banta said. The number of criminal indictments and pleas in Georgia for fiscal year 2006 that began in Oct. 1 will probably be triple that of last fiscal year, he said, noting that 450 such cases have already occurred this year.

“The only thing I can really advise employers to do is to sign up for Basic or IMAGE program,” he said. “There are only so many things employers can do to determine if documents are real, because there are lots of excellent counterfeits out there. That’s the problem with the current law; anyone with a document can circumvent the law,” he added.

Law enforcement efforts in Georgia have been more aggressive in the past few months, although ICE claims it is going after only companies that are “major offenders,” Mr. Banta said.

However any employer who simply does a poor job of completing the I-9 immigration forms required for hiring non-U.S. citizens can be charged for harboring illegals by giving them jobs, he noted. The charge can result in a felony sentence with 10 years imprisonment and $250,000 fines.

Contact Mr. Banta at (404) 249-1200 or rbanta@bantalaw.com for more information.