By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 11, 2008
Every few weeks for nearly four years, the Secret Service screened the IDs of employees for a Maryland cleaning company before they entered the house of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, the nation's top immigration official.
The company's owner says the workers sailed through the checks -- although some of them turned out to be illegal immigrants.
Now, owner James D. Reid finds himself in a predicament that he considers especially confounding. In October, he was fined $22,880 after U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement investigators said he failed to check identification and work documents and fill out required I-9 verification forms for employees, five of whom he said were part of crews sent to Chertoff's home and whom ICE told him to fire because they were undocumented.
"Our people need to know," said the Montgomery County businessman. "Our Homeland Security can't police their own home. How can they police our borders?"
Reid admits he made mistakes but called the fine so excessive that it may put him out of business. Several of his workers moved after ICE agents showed up at their homes, he said.
Raising a common objection among employers as ICE cracks down on illegal hirings across the country, Reid said it is unreasonable to expect businesspeople to distinguish between fake and real driver's licenses and Social Security cards.
Immigration laws are unevenly enforced, he added, allowing big companies to stay in business while crushing small-business owners and workers. He said the rules punish "scapegoats" such as him while inviting people at every level -- customers, subcontractors and contractors -- to look the other way while benefiting economically from cheaper labor.
"No one wants to put the blame on the head; they'd rather put the blame on the business owner," said Reid, who owns Consistent Cleaning Services. "Damned if I should be fined for employees that I took over to their house."
Chertoff declined to comment. "We're very constrained in what we can say about anybody who has any kind of issue with the department," he said.
The Secret Service uses workers' ID information to conduct security checks, not immigration checks, much like most police departments do when they pull over people for traffic stops.
Eric Zahren, a spokesman for the service, which is part of Chertoff's department, declined to discuss specific screening practices. But he said agents protecting the secretary "would have run the appropriate checks, screened and escorted people as appropriate in order to maintain the security of the residence and our protectee's security."
Department of Homeland Security spokesman Russ Knocke said that in this type of investigation, ICE focuses on the employers, not where employees are dispatched. He said that contractors have the responsibility of ensuring that their workers are legal, and that the Chertoffs were assured by Reid that workers sent to their home were legal. Upon learning that Reid might have hired illegal immigrants, the Chertoffs fired him, and the secretary recused himself from the department's subsequent enforcement actions, Knocke said.
"This matter illustrates the need for comprehensive immigration reform and the importance of effective tools for companies to determine the lawful status of their workforce," he said.
The Bush administration has pushed to expand employers' use of E-Verify, for instance, an electronic system that can confirm new hires' work documents against federal databases.
In addition to the Chertoffs' house, Reid said, his service once cleaned the Washington home of former president Bill Clinton and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), now secretary of state-designee, as well as homes of another Bush Cabinet member and Clinton Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright. In those cases, he said, his company worked as a subcontractor and billing was done by a larger contractor firm.
ICE investigated Reid's company under a 1986 federal law barring employers from knowingly hiring illegal immigrants. It provides for civil and criminal penalties against employers who do not examine workers' documents and keep completed I-9 forms.
In February, ICE agents singled out Reid's company, and they subpoenaed two years of payroll and I-9 records this summer, a U.S. official said. Reid was fined $2,750 for hiring violations and $20,130 for not completing paperwork.
His offenses included failing to ask for IDs from or fill out I-9 forms for several workers who turned out to be in the country illegally. Reid said he also did not verify the eligibility of people he knew were native-born U.S. citizens, including himself, his stepbrother, his sister and his sister's friend.
ICE policy states that companies are not randomly selected for scrutiny and that all investigations are based on tips or intelligence. ICE spokeswoman Kelly Nantel said Reid was targeted under a year-old initiative called Project Safe Harbor, in which field offices pursue employers in the service, agriculture and fast-food industries.
Nantel declined to say when the Chertoffs learned of the investigation. She likened the couple to restaurant or hotel customers who take the owner's word that its workers are legal.
Reid said he was referred to the Chertoffs in 2005 and worked mainly with the secretary's wife, Meryl J. Chertoff, an adjunct professor and director of the Sandra Day O'Connor Project on the State of the Judiciary at Georgetown Law School. Reid's calendar shows that the Chertoffs paid $185 per visit for his company to clean their suburban Maryland home.
Reid said he routinely asked workers to give personal information to Secret Service agents and assumed the workers were authorized because they were cleared.
Chertoff's situation appeared to be different from a case announced last week in which federal prosecutors arrested Lorraine Henderson, the Boston port director for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, another part of Chertoff's department, on charges that she repeatedly hired illegal immigrants to clean her condominium.
Staff researcher Julie Tate and research editor Alice Crites contributed to this report.