YAKIMA -- At least 24 current and former employees of Fiesta Foods in Yakima recently were identified by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement as carrying potentially fake documentation, a company attorney has said.
ICE notified Fiesta Foods last month of the results of an employment audit conducted over several previous months, Julie Pace, a Phoenix-based attorney working for the company, said in a telephone interview.
As a result of the audit, the grocer on April 26 fired some employees, said Pace, declining to specify how many were let go. She said others identified as potentially illegal are formally contesting ICE's challenge, though Pace wouldn't say how many are in this category.
When an audit turns up questionable legal status, ICE issues a "notice of suspect documentation" to the employer.
Some of those identified by ICE had already left the company, Pace said.
Fiesta Foods uses the federal E-Verify system to check workers' legal status. ICE has not accused the company of knowingly hiring illegal immigrants.
"We haven't had a problem with that issue," Pace said.
Pace said the E-Verify system, operated by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, is not foolproof and can allow those with counterfeit documents to slip through.
E-Verify is an internet-based system that allows businesses to determine the eligibility of their employees to work in the United States. It cross-checks names and other information against Homeland Security and Social Security Administration databases.
Pace said Fiesta Foods has fully cooperated with ICE and does not face any fines.
ICE spokeswoman Virginia Kice in Seattle said the department has stepped up I-9 audits under the Obama administration. Nationwide, ICE has conducted more than 3,500 such audits since 2009, compared to a combined 757 in 2007 and 2008.
"If we create a workplace where unauthorized workers are unable to get a job, it reduces the employment magnet that encourages people to come to the country illegally," Kice said.
Kice would not comment on the Fiesta Foods audit but said if any arrests had been made or fines issued, there would be a public notice of the actions taken.
ICE has issued more than $2.5 million in fines to employers across the nation this year for knowingly hiring illegal immigrants, and nearly 48 employers have been arrested on criminal charges. ICE issued nearly $7 million in fines and arrested 196 employers in 2010.