ADDISON COUNTY — Dozens of Vermont dairy farmers found themselves in the crosshairs of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Thursday when the department rolled out its largest ever audit of employers in a crackdown on businesses shirking employment laws.
The Vermont Department of Agriculture on Thursday said ICE had targeted at least 86 farms for inspection, and Dairy Farmers Working Together reported between 86 and 100 farms were being issued subpoenas for employment records.
Addison County dairy farms employ as many as 500 foreign-born laborers — most from Mexico. Many Mexican dairy laborers have been prosecuted for entering the country without proper documentation or for overstaying their visas.
ICE is requiring businesses to turn over payroll records and I-9 forms within four days. The I-9 requires employers to review and record each a worker’s identity and work eligibility documents.
The roughly 86 Vermont subpoenas were part of a 1,000-business sweep nationwide. According to ICE Assistant Secretary John Morton, the audit — which is the largest I-9 audit in the country’s history — targeted businesses in the country’s “critical infrastructure.”
“By that I mean sectors of business that are particularly important to our way of life,” said Morton during a Thursday afternoon teleconference. Such sectors included food and agriculture, as well as energy facilities, nuclear plants, water treatment, and emergency services.
Morton said the audit was meant to “even the playing field for employers that play by the rules,” and illustrated ICE’s commitment both to enforcing federal employment law and protecting work opportunities for legal residents.
He also said that every business served an audit during the sweep was selected because investigative leads indicated employers may have broken employment laws.
The audits also indicate the department’s shift in attention from employee raids to focusing on employers.
“If we find that you are knowingly violating the law, we’re going to investigate you and we’re going to prosecute you if we can,” Morton said.