Melissa Azallion is among the one of the nation’s top firms in immigration law in McNair Law. She grew up in Ohio and attended college there, going on to practice law in the Midwest and Southeast regions. Although based in South Carolina, she has forged a national practice as her work relates to immigration. McNair Law operates out of seven offices mostly in North and South Carolina, but the employment and immigration practice group is not geographically limited.
Immigration law has undergone considerable change since Azallion joined McNair Law, and she recognizes the importance of possessing a current understanding of the legalities. “Immigration law has certainly evolved over time, and there’s a variety of reasons for that. A lot of it has to do with changes in the congressional composition and changes in the executive administration,” Azallion said.
Depending on the composition of congress, immigration reform bills come and go, but nothing significant has passed recently. However, there have been many proposals to overhaul the immigration system. These proposals have taken the form of tightening border enforcement, implementing new visa categories, and adjusting the process required to obtain citizenship. It is important to note that some of the most substantial changes have come from the presidential level. There has absolutely been a change in enforcement priorities. For example, there have been executive orders that have restricted travel for individuals from specific countries. Additionally, there has been an increase in enforcement priorities regarding the removal and deportation of aliens. “There’s been a huge increase in worksite enforcement, which is certainly an area that largely impacts the food service industry,” Azallion said.
Currently, about 20 states have passed immigration laws that require the use of the E-Verify system. E-Verify allows employers to compare an employee’s Employment Eligibility Verification Form, the I-9, to information within the government’s database. Essentially, E-Verify tells an employer who a particular employee is and whether he or she is authorized to work based on the information provided on the I-9 form. Once the I-9 form is filed, it is up to the employer’s discretion to run that information through E-Verify. Interestingly, E-Verify is not mandatory under federal law, but many states have passed laws that mandate it. At this point, E-Verify is not mandatory in New York, New Jersey, or Connecticut. However, Azallion warns that with $100 million invested into enhancing the E-Verify system, it could become compulsory on a national level in the future.
For employers operating in a state in which E-Verify is mandatory, it is important to understand the penalties for failing to comply. “In February of 2017 there was an update to the penalty matrix. If an employer does not comply with the rules they can be monetarily fined, and if they’ve done something intentionally or especially egregious, such as knowingly hiring unauthorized workers, they can be criminally fined. Over the past ten years, fines for employers have substantially increased. The government coffers are growing in this area,” Azallion explained. In order to avoid penalties, employers must be proactive rather than reactive by properly handling their internal I-9 audits and ensuring employee compliance.
Most of Azallion’s practice focuses on business immigration issues. There are certainly areas within her practice that are particularly applicable to restaurant professionals. “Most of what we do is business immigration work that falls into two categories. One would be visas and green cards. We help companies that need to process those documents for individuals. The second category centers on worksite enforcement, which is the I-9 and E-Verify compliance component,” Azallion described. Her practice is equipped to represent clients through internal I-9 audits and training, as well as situations in which the government has already become involved.
In order to continue to operate without incident under constantly changing and increasingly impinging immigration laws, Azallion has two suggestions for food service professionals. “One, I would consider the last time that I’ve trained my employees on issues relating to E-Verify. Training is a good first step, and it entails nothing more than a refresher on the rules, how to complete the form, and how to be comfortable and prepared should ICE come knocking. The second step in addition to training is conducting an internal audit. There are some fairly recent online audit guidelines that explain the do’s and don’ts. Again, it all comes down to being proactive,” she explained. According to Azallion, we are undoubtedly in a period of change in which worksite enforcement is becoming increasingly emphasized.
The restaurant business is a high turnover industry. Employers are perpetually hiring and terminating employees, and constantly changing immigration laws only increase that burden. For example, with evolving immigration policies, employees that were once authorized to work may no longer be eligible. Azallion offered restaurant and food service professionals some valuable parting advice: “Prepare for possible change, not only in the law, but in your workforce as well. Avoid being blindsided by being proactive.”
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