Sixty-three New Mexico businesses were given audit notices as part of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s expanded national efforts targeting undocumented workers and those who employ them, according to information provided by the agency.
The Journal obtained the number of audit notices from a regional ICE spokeswoman, who said in a statement that they were delivered between Feb. 26 and March 2.
On Thursday, local officials and community leaders held a news conference to express concerns that ICE is targeting immigrant-run businesses and that the agency’s activities could have a chilling effect on the state’s economy.
“It scares families, and it scares people away from businesses, and those are things we can’t afford,” City Councilor Pat Davis, who is a congressional candidate, said after a press conference with immigrant advocacy group El Centro de Igualdad y Derechos.
The ICE statement said the effort is centered on “protecting jobs for U.S. citizens and others who are lawfully employed, eliminating unfair competitive advantages for companies that hire an illegal workforce and strengthening public safety and national security.”
Also referenced were comments made last year by acting ICE Director Tom Homan, who said the agency would increase its work site enforcement efforts nationally.
Davis said ICE has declined to name the businesses that received the audit notifications, and the ICE spokeswoman declined to provide comment beyond that given in the statement. But Davis said he has heard anecdotal reports that immigrant-owned food trucks and gas stations are among the recipients of the notices. He said it was clear the agency “isn’t applying the law equally” across the business community.
Davis spoke at the press conference, as did Bernalillo County Commissioner Debbie O’Malley and Albuquerque Public Schools board member Barbara Petersen, who called ICE’s efforts “a horrible stress for children and for families.”
A similar event was held in Santa Fe earlier this month after audits of at least six small businesses in the area, according to community organizers.
The ICE spokeswoman said that data about how the 63 notices compare with previous efforts by the agency were not immediately available.
While agents were serving the audit notices, they arrested 23 people under suspicion of being in the country illegally, according to the statement. It was unclear, however, how many of them were arrested in New Mexico and how many were arrested in West Texas, where agents were also serving notices at the time.
Of the 23 arrested, three were also charged with federal criminal violations for illegal re-entry after deportation and/or possession of a firearm by a prohibited person. The investigations are ongoing.
Businesses that received audit notices had three business days to provide employment eligibility verification forms, also known as I-9 forms. The Journal could not determine how many of the businesses produced the required documents or what happened to those that did not.
Marian Mendez of El Centro said her organization has led several I-9 audit and ICE enforcement workshops to educate employers and employees on their rights and plans to partner with industry and economic development associations “to help protect our fragile economy.”
Luis Angel Mendez Serrano, who owns the Mexican restaurant Nena’s Food and was a speaker at the news conference, was not one of the recipients of the audit notices. Still, he called ICE’s activities “a concern.”
“I am committed to doing everything in my power to ensure that my employees and their families feel safe,” he said.