Barbara Spyridakis, owner of Thesis Painting in Springfield, and ICE Deputy Special Agent in Charge Scot R. Rittenberg sign Thesis into the IMAGE program to verify the immigration status of employees. (Immigration and Customs Enforcement)

The program is run by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and is called IMAGE, short for ICE Mutual Agreement between Government and Employers. It provides training and technology to private companies who want to abide by immigration laws, but maybe don’t have the expertise to spot phony documents.

And one area the government would like to keep particularly clean is the realm of government contractors. Or as Spyridakis put it recently, ”we do a lot of jobs in buildings we’re not allowed to talk about.”

So ICE sent her an audit notice in November 2009, giving her three days to pull and provide all the documentation on her employees. “I was having a conniption fit,” Spyridakis recalled.

Thesis Painting, which does large interior and exterior painting jobs, has a little more than 50 employees at any one time. And when ICE checked her work force in 2009, eight of her workers had provided false documentation to her, though Spyridakis thought they had been following all the rules about obtaining I-9 forms from immigrants.

“How was I supposed to know their records were false?” she said. ”Some were so good, and so false.” She had to fire all eight people.

ICE pitched the idea to Spyridakis about joining IMAGE, and she gladly signed up. Now, “I feel like James Bond,” she said.

She and her staff now know how to use magnifying tools to closely examine documents to see if they’re genuine, and they’re part of ICE’s E-Verify Internet system that checks I-9 forms with data from Social Security and Homeland Security records.

Last month, Thesis formally joined IMAGE, making it the third business in Virginia and one of 118 members nationwide. ICE said some other Washington area businesses, including Bates Trucking and Trash Removal and General Dynamics, are among the employers now in the system. Last week, national companies Chick-fil-A, Hyatt and Best Western hotels and Toyota North America signed on to IMAGE.

“A lot of small businesses like us don’t have a big HR department,” Spyridakis said. “We just want to make a living, paint some walls. I can’t afford to hire an HR company.”

And the nature of commercial painting, as with many businesses in this area, involves a lot of new or transient employees and immigrants. “We get applicants all the time,” Spyridakis said. But of the 400 applications she’s gotten in recent months, “the majority were illegal immigrants,” she said. “I would’ve probably hired some of them, based on what little I knew of the documentation.”

Scot R. Rittenberg, deputy special agent in charge of ICE’s homeland security investigations in the Washington field office, said, “It’s important that we know that companies that are working on U.S. government contracts are employing a legal work force.”

Once a company is in the IMAGE program, there’s no additional paperwork for them, Rittenberg said. It simply provides them the tools to verify their own applicants or employees. And employers can use the IMAGE brand to show their community, or new markets when they expand, that they are using only legal workers, and warn away illegal workers.

Spyridakis was happy to join. She would like to have a stable, permanent crew of workers, but it’s just not that way in the painting business. “We only get immigrants,” she said. “Our industry, and the construction industry, rely on the immigrant work force.” Hiring illegal immigrants could subject her to worse things than an ICE audit, and “I can’t put my company at risk."