The term “I-9 audit” strikes dread in the heart of many employers, but it doesn’t need to be that way.
The federal government requires that all U.S. employers complete a Form I-9—aka the Employment Eligibility Verification form—for every worker they hire. The I-9 verifies that the employee—whether citizen or noncitizen—is authorized to work here. An I-9 audit is a thorough review of an employer’s I-9 forms.
Here’s the twist: There are two types of I-9 audits:
- Those conducted by the government
- Those conducted by the employers themselves.
Do one right, and it will hold you in good stead should you be subject to the other!
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Both types of I-9 audits ensure that:
- There’s a Form I-9 on file for all active (and some former) employees
- Each I-9 form is complete and accurate
- The forms are based on authentic documentation
Beyond that common objective, I-9 audits differ in how they’re conducted—and what happens next.
Anatomy of a Federal I-9 Audit
Form I-9 falls under the province of the U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services (USCIS). Most I-9 audits are conducted by U.S. Immigration and Custom Enforcement (ICE). Sometimes, I-9 audits are because of random sampling; others are triggered by employee tip-offs.
Either way, agents must give employers at least three business days’ notice before starting an inspection.
How likely is it that a federal I-9 audit will turn up some problems? Very! About 76% of paper I-9s have at least one error or omission, according to the USCIS Outreach Branch.
When minor errors (e.g., missing dates or signatures) are found, employers have 10 days under the good-faith provision to correct them. When more substantive violations are identified—say, ICE determines that an employees’ documents are invalid—things can escalate quickly.
The Cost of an I-9 Audit
The current I-9 paperwork penalty ranges from $234 to $2,322 depending on employer size, total violations and other factors. Given how common these errors are, things can get pricey in a hurry.
The penalties for knowingly hiring unauthorized workers are much stiffer, ranging from $590 to $4,722 for a first offense to as much as $23,607 for a third offense.
ICE conducted more than 6,450 I-9 audits in 2019, resulting in 2,675 arrests and more than $14 million in fines. While the pandemic limited subsequent audits, they are expected to ramp up in the coming months.
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Conducting an I-9 Audit
The best way to skate through an I-9 audit unscathed is simple: Be rigorous about Form 1-9 completion and documentation and conduct regular internal I-9 audits.
Many employers use third-party HR specialists to ensure an objective internal I-9 audit. However, if you do use in-house staff, make sure they follow a formal, meticulous process—and that those performing your audit are not those who completed the forms originally.
The term “federal I-9 audit” isn’t one that most employers want to hear, but if you practice your due diligence, there’s really nothing to fear.