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As workplace raids multiply, Trump administration charges few companies

ICE has announced cases against five companies for immigration violations since 2017

Handcuffed workers are escorted into a bus for transportation to a processing center following a raid by U.S. immigration officials at a Koch Foods plant in Morton, Miss., on Wednesday. U.S. immigration officials raided several Mississippi food processing plants on Wednesday. (Rogelio V. Solis/AP)

The Trump administration has eagerly pursued arrests of undocumented immigrants over the last two years, culminating in a record-setting raid of Mississippi poultry plants this week. But the administration appears to have been far less aggressive in going after corporations involved in those cases.

Prosecuting corporations, as opposed to individual workers or managers, for immigration-related offenses was also relatively rare during the Obama administration, but it has slowed further under the Trump administration, according to a database maintained by Duke University and the University of Virginia and data reviewed by The Washington Post.

The Corporate Prosecution Registry tracks cases in which companies, rather than individuals, are charged with violating federal law, and it includes cases resolved with plea agreements as well as deferred and non-prosecution agreements.

There were at least 88 such cases against companies for immigration violations between 2009 and 2016 during the Obama administration and at least five companies prosecuted for immigration violations since Trump took office in 2017, according to the data on corporate prosecutions and a review of news releases from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

The Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University examined federal data for a one-year period — April 2018 through March 2019 — and found that no companies were prosecuted for knowingly hiring undocumented workers. “Actual prosecution of employers for employing immigrants without proper documentation actually has been relatively rare,” the report states.

Elizabeth Iraheta, a Salvadoran immigrant who works at Koch Foods Inc., says she now has to take care of a 12-year-old whose mother was detained. (Video: Luis Velarde/The Washington Post)

“It is striking that with all of the emphasis on prosecution of immigration offenses, prosecutions against the most serious corporate offenders has almost vanished under the new administration,” said Brandon Garrett, a professor at Duke University School of Law.

Cases against companies for employing undocumented immigrants typically originate from ICE, which forwards them to the appropriate U.S. attorney’s office to determine if a prosecution is viable. Such cases generally do not run through DOJ’s Washington office, and Justice Department officials said they were unaware of any directive not to pursue companies for immigration offenses.

The Trump administration says it has made ensuring employers comply with immigration and labor laws a top priority.

There was a more than 300 percent increase in investigations — including federal audits to determine whether companies were hiring undocumented immigrants — between the 2017 and 2018 fiscal years, according to ICE. The number of criminal arrests of managers nearly doubled in fiscal 2018 to 100 compared with 59 in fiscal 2017, according to ICE figures. There have been 31 such arrests so far this year, but many cases are still ongoing, and more arrests are possible, the agency said.

The agency has initiated worksite audits and inspections at thousands of business across the country over the last couple of years, a Justice Department spokesman said in a statement.

“Oftentimes, those audits and inspections are the beginning of a lengthy process that could potentially lead to criminal charges, if sufficient evidence of criminal activity is discovered,” the statement said. “Compliance with all immigration laws remains a priority for the Department of Justice."

The mass immigration raids in Mississippi on Wednesday hit seven plants run by five companies in six cities.

Federal authorities have yet to announce criminal or civil charges against the companies, despite a year-long investigation that ensnared about 680 people the agency said were illegally working at their facilities. ICE said it was the largest single-state workplace enforcement action in U.S. history.

“I strongly suspect that the employers will be charged at some point. Search warrants are used to collect evidence,” said John Sandweg, the former acting director of ICE during the Obama administration.

D. Michael Hurst, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Mississippi, said in a conference call with reporters Thursday afternoon that there was an “open criminal investigation.”

“Law enforcement operations can take time,” a Justice Department spokesman said in a statement.

Besides charging companies or top corporate executives with violating immigration law, the federal government can hold them accountable in other ways.

One of the companies involved in this week’s raids, Illinois-based Koch Foods, agreed last year to pay a $3.75 million settlement to resolve a federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) lawsuit the agency filed on behalf of workers in 2011, according to an EEOC release. The complaint alleged that Hispanic workers at the Morton, Miss., plant were subject to discrimination based on race, sex and national origin.

Koch Foods did not immediately return calls for comment. It is among the country’s largest private companies, with $3.2 billion in revenue in 2017, according to a ranking by Forbes. The company paid a $500,000 fine after authorities raided another one of its plants in Ohio in 2007, leading to the arrest of 160 employees.

Koch Foods is not associated with Charles and David Koch, the conservative Republican donors.

Alabama-based Peco Foods said in a statement that it was cooperating with authorities. “We adhere strongly to all local, state and federal laws,” the statement said.

Of the five immigration cases pursued against corporations under Trump, the largest was in 2017, against Asplundh Tree Experts, according to the Duke-University of Virginia database. The Pennsylvania company pleaded guilty and paid $95 million, the largest fine ever levied by ICE, for employing undocumented workers. The case was the culmination of a six-year investigation.

In its statement announcing that plea deal, ICE said: “Worksite enforcement investigations often involve egregious violations of criminal statutes by employers and widespread abuses. … By uncovering such violations, ICE can send a strong deterrent message to other employers who knowingly employ illegal aliens.”

The data compiled by Duke University and the University of Virginia does not include cases brought against individual corporate executives. For example, last year, a Tennessee man, James Brantley, pleaded guilty to multiple charges including employing undocumented workers at his slaughterhouse and meatpacking plant.

There has been a long-standing debate in legal circles about the effectiveness of prosecuting corporations versus focusing on jailing executives. Prosecuting a company for the bad behavior of a few misbehaving executives is unfair to shareholders who will bear the cost, some legal experts argue. Others say the threat of hefty fines and embarrassment of a corporate guilty plea act as an important deterrent.

“Only by holding the corporation accountable can we ensure that criminal violations do not keep occurring. Only the corporation can usually pay appropriate fines, but more important, only the corporation can fix systematic failures in its compliance,” said Garrett, the Duke professor.

Proving the top executives were aware of the illegal hiring can be difficult in some cases, legal experts say. There may also be no need to prosecute corporations in some cases, said Sandweg. Charging a CEO was “often fatal to the company,” he said. “If we charged the CEO, that often shut the business itself down. These were small, medium-sized businesses.”

Justice Department officials say they are focused on protecting U.S. workers. In 2017, the department unveiled an initiative to prosecute companies that favor foreign workers in the country on visas over U.S. citizens. So far, seven settlements have emerged from the initiative, most recently a $60,000 civil fine against Sam Williamson Farms Inc., a Florida strawberry farm.

The farm told its U.S. workers at the end of the 2016-2017 picking season that it planned to rely on visa workers, and it ultimately made good on the promise, hiring 300 people in the country on visas and no U.S. workers, according to the Justice Department. As part of the settlement, Sam Williamson Farms Inc. will pay U.S. workers up to $85,000 in back pay.

In 2018, the Justice Department sued the state of California, alleging it has violated the Constitution with laws that are friendly to undocumented immigrants. That move, though, was seen in some quarters as being friendly to companies, which could face fines of up to $10,000 for failing to comply with the requirements the state imposed.

Meanwhile, Trump’s businesses have faced questions about their own hiring practices.

This year, The Washington Post found that Trump’s company employed undocumented immigrants for years at its golf clubs — hiring them as maintenance workers, groundskeepers and housekeepers. Latin American employees, including some who entered the United States illegally, built fountains and waterfalls, sidewalks and rock walls at the company’s winery and its golf courses for years, The Post reported Friday.

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The Post has spoken to more than 40 undocumented former Trump workers, some of whom said they were pressed to work extra hours without pay, or urged by Trump supervisors to obtain false documents. The Trump Organization fired at least 18 undocumented workers in January, after an internal audit found their papers — some submitted years earlier — were fraudulent.

The Post has not found any evidence of ICE audits or raids at Trump properties in the recent past, either before or after Trump ran for president. The company has not been publicly accused of or charged with violating immigration law.

A spokesperson for ICE declined to say if the agency had previously had contact with Trump’s company: “To avoid negatively impacting the reputation of law-abiding businesses, ICE does not release information on or discuss such audits unless the reviews result in fines or the filing of criminal charges.”

The drop in corporate immigration cases has coincided with an overall drop in white-collar enforcement. The number of white-collar crime prosecutions hit a historic low in January, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, which has tracked prosecutions dating back to 1998.

At the current pace, prosecutions are on track to be down almost 6 percent more this year compared with fiscal 2018 and down nearly 30 percent compared with five years ago, according to the website.

Staff writer David Fahrenthold, Nick Miroff and researcher Eddy Palanzo contributed to this story.