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Business Owners Are Caught in the Crossfire of State and Federal Immigration Laws

Business owners are being asked to stay on top of a maze of immigration rules that are constantly in flux. That's a lot to ask, regardless of which side of the debate you fall on.

Image via Shutterstock

As a general contractor and owner of an architecture firm, I know the importance of the relationship between a business owner and his or her attorney. To be a good employer and stay profitable, it’s necessary to navigate a complicated, ever-changing maze of legalities. Especially in my industry, the laws that determine how we do business are constantly in flux.

Based on what we saw in 2017, immigration laws will likely have a major, direct impact on businesses this year. Some of the changes have been announced, and business owners can anticipate more changes. Some of the changes will not be announced and require us to stay on our toes. If you happen to have foreign-born employees, few of these laws are encouraging.

Voice of San Diego CommentaryI won’t pretend to give legal advice, but I do know how complicated business law can be; I regularly navigate through the California Building Code, the San Diego Municipal Code, the California Environmental Quality Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, Fair labor laws such as the minimum wage and paid sick days ordinance, the Occupational Safety and Health Act and of course state and federal tax law. Historically, the contracting industry has been targeted by immigration officials, and it seems this will continue getting even worse, not only for me, but for any sector that is perceived to hire more immigrants — restaurants, convenience stores and retail shops.

As recently as December, Tom Homan, the deputy director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement said at a press conference that he “wants to see a 400 percent increase in work site operations.” Last fall, he instructed Homeland Security Investigations to potentially quintuple worksite enforcement actions in 2018. These priorities increased significantly in 2017. Nationally, arrests are up 30 percent from the year before, resulting in a 37 percent increase in the number of deportations.

Under the guise of public safety, San Diego County is not-so-quietly turning into a community that instills fear in those who make up a key backbone to our business economy, our immigrant population. Our county leads the U.S. in the number of non-criminals being arrested by ICE. Every day, this “new normal” in their home life is causing stress and affecting our employees’ morale. Ignoring it isn’t an option, as all business owners know how outside pressures, immigration-related or not, and even to just a few employees, can be disruptive to overall workplace productivity.

Since businesses like mine are preparing to be prime “work site enforcement” targets, staying compliant means we’re caught in a legal crossfire. If ICE, a federal agency, asks to verify my employees’ records, I can’t just turn them over. First, I need to know if they have a warrant. Then, I need to keep in mind that a new state law mandates I notify my employees within 72 hours of that inspection. How many small businesses have been keeping up with these new policies?

Regardless of which side of the immigration debate you stand, that’s a lot to ask business owners to keep up with, on top of the changing legal landscape we already face.

Business owners like me would be wise to invest in expert legal and human resources support to ensure we are I-9 compliant, meaning we’ve verified the working status of our employees. We should discuss this openly with our teams and employees to let them know what we know. And if push comes to shove, we may have to get involved in the personal lives of our employees more than we prefer to ensure their civil rights aren’t being violated, and know what kind of potential legal support they can access, such as the San Diego Rapid Response Network.

My advice to all business owners in San Diego is simple: Brace yourself.

Francisco Garcia is owner of The Building Workshop, an architectural firm based in San Diego.

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