An immigration audit of a child care operator in the Twin Cities has sparked a local debate on the nation's immigration policies.
Jardin Magico, a Spanish immersion daycare and pre-school that operates two locations in Minneapolis and one in Edina, lost a number of employees after Immigration and Customs Enforcement identified 60 out of 160 workers whose employment eligibility in the United States is in question.
On Friday, the school informed parents by letter that, after an immigration audit, an unspecified number of employees left the school rather than contest the accuracy of their paperwork. The daycare is staying open and has brought in replacement staff it had hired in anticipation of an expansion that is now on hold.
John Keller, executive director of the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota, met with workers Tuesday night to discuss their options.
"The majority of people who are caught up in [an immigration audit] are productive workers with no criminal backgrounds -- many who have been here for years and years and are exactly the people our economy needs, but will only fully flourish after Congress and the president sign comprehensive immigration reform," he said.
The immigration bill recently passed by the Senate would provide an opportunity for the nation's 11 million unauthorized immigrants to live and work in the United States if they meet certain conditions. It would also beef up border security and employment verification. But the fate of the immigration overhaul faces a tougher road in the House, where many Republicans want to focus on stricter border enforcement.
Under current rules, E-Verify, the federal electronic verification program that allows employers to check whether a job applicant has permission to work in the United States, is optional. Jardin Magico didn't use it.
Attorney Loan Huynh, who represents Jardin Magico, said she cannot comment on the investigation, citing employees' privacy.
Huynh, an immigration attorney, has noticed a sharp increase in such audits and penalties. In 2012, federal authorities fined employers $13 million, up from $1 million in 2009, she said.
"At this time, our current immigration policy is ... enforcement until we get immigration reform," she said.
Immigrations and Customs Enforcement data for the five-state region that includes Minnesota show a steep increase in such audits. The agency doubled the number of companies it audited in the last four years, reaching 3,000 employers last year. Locally, fines increased more than six-fold since 2010.
In the case of Jardin Magico, the investigation is ongoing. ICE found one employee who had previously been deported. No one else was taken into custody.
The labor market for early childhood teachers is tightening, said Chad Dunkley, chief operating officer of New Horizon Academy, and also president of the Minnesota Child Care Association. He said schools like Jardin Magico have even more recruitment challenges.
"I would say if you're in a Spanish immersion program where you needed someone who was qualified to be a teacher, and in Minnesota, that requires you to have a certain level of education, and speak fluent Spanish, that's going to be a much bigger challenge for that type of program," Dunkley said. "So I think they're in a unique position that will make it very difficult to quickly replace teachers that are both bilingual in Spanish, and highly educated, which is what we're all looking for these days."
The school isn't likely to win sympathy from those who favor strict controls on immigration and hiring.
"It's their own doing," said Ruthie Hendrycks, founder of Minnesotans Seeking Immigration Reform. "Really, I cannot feel sorry for them if they're going to say, 'Oh golly gee, now we're getting all this heat, we have parents who are upset with us, we don't know about the expansions.' If they would have hired an unemployed American, or legal residents, they wouldn't be in this situation."
Hendrycks does not favor any change in immigration policy that would give what she calls "amnesty" to the 11 million people living in the country without permission, nor does she favor a guest-worker program.
Keller hopes Congress will change the immigration system in ways that recognize the contributions immigrants make to the economy, and result in less heartache. He witnessed Jardin Magico parents devastated to learn they were losing teachers who were close to their children and teachers sad that they could not say goodbye to the children.
"The vast majority of parents expressed nothing but concern and gratitude for the bond that these teachers have made with their children, and a concern about what would happen to the teachers ... and what they could do to support the teachers," he said. "What was broken in this immigration action was some really intense emotional connections that have been made sometimes over the course of many years with these teachers, the children and the parents of the children."
For Huynh, Jardin Magico's predicament points to an unfair element of the immigration system: the perceived unfairness of how federal authorities determine which employers are audited.
"It can be triggered as simple as a disgruntled employee, who calls the immigration service tip line and says 'hey, you should look into this employer,'" she said. "It could be a competitor who may use this as a tool and we've seen that situation."