By AURORA OROZCO and MARK REAGAN | STAFF WRITERS
PORT ISABEL — Federal agents have been handing out audit notices to some Rio Grande Valley businesses since Monday to find out whether employees at those locations are allowed to work in the United States.
Businesses in Port Isabel, South Padre Island and Brownsville began receiving notices of inspections by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Employees of at least five restaurants reported ICE agents delivered notices of inspection to the owners, meaning the businesses would be audited to verify the status of its workers, according to Agripina Gómez, community organizer for La Union del Pueblo Entero (LUPE) in San Benito.
“We received calls from workers that ICE agents started arriving to businesses in Port Isabel,” Gómez said. “We went and confirmed it was true and that agents also went to other restaurants on Monday and Tuesday.”
Gómez could not confirm whether any undocumented worker had been detained during the inspections, but said several people had stopped going to work out of fear of being detained.
“We know that due to the lack of workers, the business owners have been working in the kitchen, working as waiters and cleaning,” she said. “This is going to affect businesses.”
According to ICE, which confirmed the inspections started Monday, the purpose of an “I-9 audit” is to verify employers are following employment laws.
The operation follows comments by President Donald Trump over the past few weeks that ICE would be conducting immigration sweeps throughout the country to round up people with deportation orders.
An ICE spokesperson said the I-9 compliance operation is not a raid.
“On July 15, 2019 ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) special agents served notices of inspection (NOIs), also known as I-9 audit notices on some South Texas businesses,” ICE said in a statement.
These notices alert business owners that ICE will audit their hiring records to determine whether they are in compliance with the law. Citizens and lawful permanent residents are allowed to find employment, but all others must have work visas.
“Employers are required to produce their company’s I-9s within three business days, after which ICE will conduct an inspection for compliance,” ICE stated in a press release. “If the employers are not following the law, an I-9 inspection will likely result in fines and could begin a penal process, should they knowingly be violating the law.”
With the inspections underway, LUPE plans to reinforce its immigrant rights campaign during the next days.
“We’re posting more information through our social media channels about how people should behave in case they are confronted by a federal agent,” Gómez said. “We’re reminding them to remain quiet, not to sign anything, not to show false documents and to ask to speak to their lawyer.”
Last year, ICE HSI conducted a two-phase nationwide operation where the agency served more than 5,200 businesses with 1-9 notices from Jan. 29, 2018, to March 30, 2018, and from July 16, 2018, to July 20, 2018.
The operation resulted in 93 arrests.
Violations of the law can also result in substantial civil fines.