IN AN ONGOING EFFORT to build what it calls a "culture of compliance" among employers, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is turning more frequently to a program that quietly compels employers to fire anyone who can't show valid immigration status. Instead of physically invading a workplace and detaining illegal immigrants, ICE asks an employer to provide valid documentation for each worker.

That's what happened in May at Meduri Farms, a fruit orchard near Salem. Hundreds of employees who couldn't provide documentation were allegedly laid off after the audit. Workers from the farm approached Ramón Ramírez, the president of PCUN, a tree planters' and farmworkers' union.

"They said they were being laid off, and they didn't know why," says Ramírez. "Some had ongoing workers' comp cases, and they wanted to know what would happen. We think that around 350 people were laid off."

Ramírez says that those existing claims are still being negotiated, but the layoffs appear to be part of a trend of increasing ICE audits, also known as "desktop raids."

"We think it's happening more frequently than people realize," he says. Representatives of Meduri Farms did not respond to the Mercury's requests for comment by press time.

Based on previous complaints or tips, ICE decides to audit a company and provide an employer with a list of people who don't match legal immigration records, according to ICE spokesperson Lorie Dankers. "We'll give the companies time to take a look at their documents, and we work with them," she says. "If they have workers who are not documented, then we'll talk about circumstances."

To avoid paying a fine and dealing with further audits, a company can decide to cooperate with ICE and establish a routine for verifying I-9 forms through a federal database. Some companies go a step further, agreeing to undergo training on how to identify illegal immigrants and detect false documents. Those companies include Labor Ready, the country's largest provider of temporary day labor, which maintains five branches in the Portland area.

ICE is reluctant to release data about the clandestine audits. In November 2009, it announced that 1,000 audits had taken place across the country. Of those audits, only three were in Oregon, according to Dankers. In the past three years, says Dankers, one Oregon company that failed to cooperate after an audit was fined $49,225. According to a recent New York Times report, the agency levied $3 million in fines for non-compliance nationwide over the past year—more than any year on record.

The last headline-grabbing immigration raid in Portland occurred in 2007 at the offices of American Staffing Resources, which provided workers for the Fresh Del Monte produce plant in North Portland ["Immigration Busts at Del Monte Fruit Factories," Blogtown, June 12, 2007]. This visible enforcement of the Bush era may be giving way to quieter tactics, but a new brand of enforcement is gaining steam.

"We heard promises from Obama that he would pass comprehensive immigration reform," says Erik Sorensen, spokesman for immigrant-rights coalition CAUSA Oregon. "But nothing has actually happened."

Dankers notes that ICE audits usually fly under the radar. "Often, there's a finding of compliance," she says. "But nobody reports on that."