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Friday, August 24, 2007

How We Know All Employees Are Legal

I have for some time wondered how long it would take the political demagoguery of the immigration issue to manifest itself as racist behavior in everyday people. The immigration debate in this year's local elections can best be described as putting the modifier "illegal" in front of a host of nouns (immigrant, foreigner, etc...) in order to mask mistrust and disapproval of foreign nationals in public forums. Leadership is communication, and with this type of local leadership we've been bound to get what happened this past week.

We had a caller from outside the company reach one of my young staff members to question her as to how we screened for "illegals". When pressed for specifics, he mentioned one of our Hispanic employees by name and said that he "knew" she was illegal because she was on his list. He claimed to have a list of illegal immigrants working for our company, that he was with "the neighborhood watch" and that he would be "checking back in on us from time to time" to see if we were hiring illegals. By the way, the employee he mentioned was hired under a valid U.S. work permit and is very much legal.

We also had an anonymous suggestion that a different employee was "illegal". That too turned out to be false.

That we received a phone call or a suggestion wouldn't be reason enough for me to write about. What continues to concern me is that our political discourse, particularly the absence of national leadership and the wrong type of local leadership, breeds a climate where we have a new accusation to throw at foreign-born citizens. With the current momentum, the "I" word ("Illegals") will replace the "N" word in the racist lexicon, but with no social sanction to the person who uses it. This will particularly hurt Hispanics in our community and make us all look like we need another lunch counter demonstration to awaken righteous Nashvillians.

Equally concerning is the fact that new regulations from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and new state and local laws place the burden for screening illegal aliens on the shoulder of employers, since the government won't do its job of protecting the borders and investing in economic development in the countries whose people migrate here. This makes accusations against employers potentially damaging from the distraction and cost of immigration audits and investigations.

So, since leadership is communication, allow me to lead on a couple of subjects:

1. Thomas Nelson does not hire illegal immigrants. We do this because its the law and for no other reason. Having worked in Mexico and seen Third World working conditions, I have no problem hiring anyone with enough grit and determination to make it all the way to Nashville. However, that's against the law and we always comply with the law. Everyone who is hired goes through a criminal background check which includes a nation-wide social security number trace. We have eliminated candidates due to this screening and we will continue to do so. We comply with the law in completing Form I-9, which requires one of my staff to physically review and handle the identification papers of every new hire. In cases where we have temporary work permits, we periodically go back through our files (as we're doing this week) and make sure all are current. When they aren't, we go to the employee and request updated permits as a condition of continued employment.

How do we know this works? Remember, we submit FICA payments for each employee every two weeks. If any company submits FICA to the government under a phony SS#, it gets a "no-match letter" at year's end from the Social Security Administration (SSA). That company then, under new regulations from the Department of Homeland Security, has 90 days to resolve the issue or remove the employee. We have not received a no-match letter since implementing the nation-wide social security trace five years ago. If you're looking for an employer with loose practices to criticize for hiring illegals, go look somewhere else.

2. Thomas Nelson values people of all nationalities who want to work here. This HR department is the point at which all candidates start. We are a diverse group of professionals and we don't care about your age, race, religion, national origin, private life, disability status, shoe size, hair color, weight, politics, or favorite type of music. If you have the skill and the passion for what we do, all else is secondary. The only exceptions are (a) that you be eligible to work in the United States (because that's the law), and (b) that you not be an Alabama football fan, although we have a re-education program that will have you employable to wearing orange on Football Fridays in no time.

In my church we believe that there are four sins that cry to heaven; that are so egregious that they offend and diminish the dignity of the human person made in the image of God. Two of them are injustice to wage earners and injustice to foreigners. Since most first-generation foreign workers are in lower-wage jobs, what I saw this week does both, and as Christians we can do better than that.

1 comment:

Thom said...

Great post, Jim! Thanks for being so plain and outspoken about TN's policy, and the ethics behind that policy. Who knew Human Resources was just a platform for preaching the gospel and for educating us on the practical value of theological anthropology and the imago Dei.