CLEMSON, South Carolina – Politics and local economics weigh heavily in federal bureaucrats’ decision-making on immigration audits of employers, a Clemson University economist’s research has found.

Michael Makowsky, a Clemson economics professor, and Thomas Stratmann of George Mason University, examined decisions made at various stages of immigration enforcement in more than 40,000 I-9 audits from 1990 to 2000. I-9 audits are designed to verify the legal work eligibility of employees.

Immigration audits

Clemson and George Mason University research identified political and economic influence in immigration audits.

“We used a novel data set to examine if congressional oversight impacted the immigration enforcement process,” said Makowsky. “We found the audits and their resulting sanctions are not solely determined by impartial enforcement of laws and regulations.”

The research showed the number of audits conducted increased with local unemployment. Further, the likelihood that a violation was identified depended on the party affiliation of the local member of Congress, whether his or her party held a majority and the size of the company investigated.

“Investigating agencies rely on local tips to initiate audits,” Makowsky said. “Those tips lead to additional investigations where there is a greater number of unemployed constituents. This is particularly interesting given that there actually fewer undocumented immigrants where local unemployment is higher.”

Makowsky and Stratmann found that members of Congress leverage their oversight authority to influence the bureaucratic agencies conducting the audits. For instance, the larger the firm being audited, the more sensitive the audit outcome is to the party identification of the local representative, with larger companies benefiting in Republican districts.

The study also found that companies issued a fine were typically able to later negotiate a reduction in the fine.

“We found when the Democrats held a majority in Congress, reductions negotiated by their companies in their districts were 13 percent smaller. When Republicans held a majority, however, their constituents were able to negotiate reductions that were 25 percent larger,” Makowsky said.