Broetje Orchards Agrees to Pay
by Miriam Jordan
Broetje doesn't admit to criminal wrongdoing, but acknowledges that auditors found the company continued to
employ unauthorized workers after being advised by ICE those employees didn't have permission to work in the U.S.
Broetje Orchards in Washington state, one of the country's largest apple growers, has agreed to pay a $2.25 million fine for hiring illegal immigrants. The fine is one of the largest ever levied against an agricultural concern, according to government officials who announced it Thursday.
The Broetje case, which dragged on for years, highlights the uncertain environment for employers as U.S. immigration policy remains in flux.
Since January 2009, the Obama administration has conducted immigration audits of more than 13,700 employers, mostly in the construction, hospitality, manufacturing and farming sectors. Companies have paid tens of millions of dollars in fines and had to dismiss thousands of workers.
"The Obama administration has eased up on enforcement for immigrant workers and their families, but not against employers," said Tamar Jacoby, president of ImmigrationWorks USA, a network of employers in industries such as hospitality, construction and food processing that hire low-skilled workers. "Audits haven't stopped."
The civil penalty levied against Broetje on Thursday was for employing nearly 950 people who weren't authorized to work in the U.S., according to Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The fate of the workers remains unclear. The majority are unlikely to be a priority for deportation, according to Obama policy that targets felons for removal from the U.S.
A family-run concern that grows apples and cherries on more than 4,000 acres in eastern Washington, Broetje was first found to have undocumented workers in a 2012 ICE audit. At the time, the federal agency's investigators identified about 1,700 workers who were suspected of being in the U.S. illegally. In ensuing years, Broetje management negotiated with the federal government and lobbied in Congress to avert a high-profile raid of its facilities by authorities and to spare longtime workers, according to sources familiar with the matter.
"Companies want to keep their workers as long as possible because the environment will change," said Julie Myers Wood, who headed ICE during the George W. Bushadministration. "Someone who is not authorized today could be permitted to work tomorrow."
In February, a federal court temporarily blocked the Obama administration from implementing a plan that would allow more than four million people in the country illegally to apply for deferred deportation and work authorizations.
Many of Broetje's ensnared workers likely would qualify because they have U.S.-born children, no criminal record and pay taxes, according to people familiar with the company.
"All businesses are expected to comply with the law and to ensure the information provided on a form I-9 (employment form) is accurate," ICE Director Sarah R. Saldana said in announcing the fine.
Undocumented workers typically secure jobs by presenting fake documents, such as Social Security numbers.
Under the settlement, Broetje doesn't admit to criminal wrongdoing, but acknowledges that auditors found the company continued to employ unauthorized workers after being advised by ICE those employees didn't have permission to work in the U.S.
Broetje is the largest employer in Walla Walla County. It has more than 1,000 permanent employees and hires up to 2,800 people during harvest season. Many of them live on the company's grounds in Prescott, Wash., where the grower has built housing, school and a day care center for workers.
When the concern first came under scrutiny years ago, it had begun to train and employ low-skilled workers in the U.S. legally, many of them refugees from Africa and Asia.
But its founders, Ralph and Cheryl Broetje, said in an interview at the time that agriculture suffered from a severe labor shortage and that they hoped an overhaul of the country's immigration system would enable their business to retain experienced workers.
The Broetjes declined to comment Thursday. But a statement attributed to the company said: "We are pleased to put this process behind us and to get back the business of growing fruit."
It said the case "highlights what is clearly a dysfunctional and broken immigration system."
The Obama administration began targeting employers because they are regarded as magnets for illegal immigration, since they provide jobs that lure undocumented workers.
The ICE audits are an answer to calls by many members of Congress to strictly enforce current immigration laws before consideration of wholesale reform of the country's immigration system.
The audits have drawn flak from both proponents and opponents of an immigration overhaul, however.
Rep. Lamar Smith (R., Texas), a leading voice among foes of giving illegal immigrants amnesty, has deemed audits ineffectual because they don't result in deportations.
ICE doesn't disclose the names of audited companies, and it said it also doesn't keep tabs on how many workers lose their jobs.
Broetje Orchards Puts People Before Profits by Stan Friedman, The Christian Century, 11/18/8
Irrigation from 4 Lower Snake Reservoirs by Reed Burkholder, Fact Sheet 1993
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