Corso’s Flower & Garden Center says it is “fully cooperating with the government’s investigation” after law enforcement officers raided its facilities in Northwest Ohio and arrested more than 100 employees suspected of working in the U.S. illegally June 5.
Corso’s, a family-owned business that also includes wholesale perennial production, growing more than 2 million perennials supplied to seven states, and a landscaping division, was the target of an operation by U.S. Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials and cooperating agencies. According to several news outlets, the raid involved about 200 agents and led to the arrest of 114 Corso’s employees at its Sandusky and Castalia, Ohio, facilities.
According to the Associated Press, the ICE agents were targeting specific individuals suspected of tax evasion and identity theft stemming from an October audit of the company that found 123 suspicious documents out of the 313 employee records reviewed.
According to a May news release from ICE, “a notice of inspection alerts business owners that ICE is going to audit their hiring records to determine whether they are complying with existing law. Employers are required to produce their company’s I-9s within three business days, after which ICE will conduct an inspection for compliance. If employers are not in compliance with the law, an I-9 inspection of their business will likely result in civil fines and could lay the groundwork for criminal prosecution if they are knowingly violating the law. All workers encountered during these investigations who are unauthorized to remain in the United States are subject to administrative arrest and removal from the country.”
Corso’s statement, which was shared on the garden center retailer and landscaper’s Facebook page, indicated that the company was not aware that some of its employees may be in the country illegally. According to The Washington Post, ICE is investigating Corso’s and “the role the employer played in hiring undocumented immigrants,” but has not yet filed any formal charges against the company.
“Just as Corso’s has strived over the past 77 years to be honest and fair in its dealings with its employees, Corso’s expects its employees to be honest with it as well,” Corso’s statement read. “Corso’s strives to comply with U.S. employment laws and therefore asks its employees and prospective employees for honest and legitimate identification and documentation. If mistakes were made or if anyone used false, fraudulent, or otherwise disingenuous identification documents or other documents to secure employment at Corso’s, the company was not aware of those things. Corso’s looks forward to the resolution of this unfortunate situation and in the interim will continue to focus efforts on serving customers as the investigation proceeds.”
Corso’s added that it regretted the “stress and pain” the arrests caused to families, and that the company was “troubled” by some reports of alleged “poor treatment of our employees during the arrest process, including an apparent lack of information provided by federal authorities to family members of those arrested. It is our hope that federal authorities will work diligently to ensure minimal disruption to families of our employees as they execute their orders.”
According to a Facebook post from HOLA, a Latino advocacy organization based in Northeast Ohio, more than 200 children in Northwest Ohio have one or both parents who are in detention; the Corso’s employees were taken to facilities in Youngstown and Seneca County, Ohio, and St. Clair County, Mich.
“This is a major humanitarian crisis unfolding, as many of the workers have spouses and children,” HOLA’s Executive Director Veronica Dahlberg wrote in a news release. “In some cases, both sets of parents were seized, and we know of many children left with babysitters, including babies and toddlers.”
Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, said in an email that his office is assisting children affected by the raid.
“My first concern is for the children who were separated from their families by the raid, and my office is looking into what we can do to help the children,” Sen. Brown said. “Tearing families apart is not going to fix our broken immigration system. Instead, we need a bipartisan solution that recognizes we aren’t going to deport 13 million people here already, but we can secure our borders and create a pathway for people to earn citizenship if they follow the law, have a job and pay taxes.”
ICE ramps up enforcement
The impact of immigration on the horticultural workforce has been a common topic of discussion among experts, and Craig Regelbrugge, senior vice president of industry advocacy & research at AmericanHort, told the GIE Media Horticulture Group that the raid on Corso’s is only the most recent example of a wider crackdown on undocumented labor, and that AmericanHort is striving to provide knowledge and resources necessary for green industry businesses to navigate the issue.
“This is just the latest [incident],” Regelbrugge says. “We've seen this before and it underscores the absolute importance of better tools and solutions for the industry to ensure access to a legal and sufficiently stable labor supply. I'm fearful that we're going to see a lot more of this.”
Regelbrugge believes it’s a rare situation in which an employer will knowingly take such a legal risk of hiring undocumented workers, and that more often than not, these employers are being duped by falsified documents. In its statement, Corso’s says it does “demand proper documentation from all those seeking employment at its facilities and also ensures that all employer taxes are properly paid.”
“Foreign-born labor has been critically important in our industry and in agriculture for decades. The vast majority of employers, when they're hiring, they're following the letter of the law,” Regelbrugge says. “It just so happens that a lot of the people who are applying have documents that appear genuine but won't stand up to the forensic scrutiny that gets applied when these audits are done.”
According to a news release issued by ICE May 14, the agency has more than doubled its worksite enforcement investigations and I-9 audits in the past seven months.
“From Oct. 1, 2017, through May 4, [Homeland Security Investigations] opened 3,510 worksite investigations; initiated 2,282 I-9 audits; and made 594 criminal and 610 administrative worksite-related arrests, respectively,” according to the release. “In comparison, for fiscal year 2017 – running October 2016 to September 2017 – HSI opened 1,716 worksite investigations; initiated 1,360 I-9 audits; and made 139 criminal arrests and 172 administrative arrests related to worksite enforcement.
"These laws help protect jobs for U.S. citizens and others who are lawfully employed, eliminate unfair competitive advantages for companies that hire an illegal workforce, and strengthen public safety and national security."
ALSO READ: For more information on how to prepare for I-9 audits and ensure your documents are accurate, read the March 2018 cover story in Nursery Management magazine.
In addition, ICE arrests overall increased by 30 percent in 2017 when compared to 2016, with a total of 143,470 arrests, according to the Fiscal Year 2017 ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations Report. The raid on Corso’s represents one of the largest in the recent past, according to The Washington Post.
Regelbrugge says that the immigration and labor issues require a nuanced approach both in terms of legislation and industry adaptation.
"There will be people calling for the industry to sort of take a look in the mirror and go through some self-analysis and figure out how to get the work done with less labor and how to potentially succeed at attracting more American workers into the industry," Regelbrugge says. "But, all those things aside, we're a full employment economy. The official government agencies that track the statistics on this sort of stuff are now telling us that there are more open jobs than there are people in the labor pool seeking to fill them."
Visa systems aren’t sufficient
With demand for labor being as high as it is in the horticulture industry, Regelbrugge says the current systems in place to grant working visas to documented immigrants aren't up to the task.
"There's an agricultural visa program, H-2A. We have a lot of folks in our industry who are attempting to use H-2A to supplement their labor. We have a lot of folks in the landscape sector who are looking to the H-2B program and the H-2B program is totally over-subscribed," Regelbrugge says. "The cap (which is 66,000) was hit in record time this year. Homeland Security just made available an additional 15,000 visas -- that represents roughly one quarter of what's actually needed. In a matter of just a few days, more applications have been received for that limited number of visas than there are visas. We really, ultimately, do need legislation that improves the available visas programs and increases the bandwidth of those programs."
AmericanHort is working to influence legislation to allow greenhouse, nursery, landscaping and retail operations better access to employees who are documented and working here legally.
“It's obviously a very difficult challenge, and we work in coalition with a lot of other industry groups and others who have overlapping interests in seeing our immigration system modernized,” Regelbrugge says. “We may actually see a vote or votes in the house of representatives in the next couple of weeks on some immigration-related provisions. It could be as few as one, it could be as many as three or four different bills, depending on how the process unfolds."
There are efforts to improve some parts of immigration policy, including modernizing the H-2A program, Regelbrugge says, but the process is slow due to limitations of the administration and the congressional legislative process.
“In the short term, administrative improvements could be made that might reduce costs and improve efficiencies for employers,” he says. “So, we're very much supporting that effort as well -- that's been taking shape for about the last year.”
Policy, law and labor issues aside, Regelbrugge also laments the human tragedy inherent in ICE raids such as the one targeting Corso’s Flower & Garden Center.
“We can talk about labor as an input, like water or fertilizer, something you need to be able to produce, distribute, sell and install plants. But the rest of the story is that these folks are as human as we are, and they are, by and large, like family in these operations,” he says. “Not only does the employer find themselves reeling just from a business survival standpoint, but it's like members of their family being ripped away and carted off in handcuffs. It's just brutal. This tears at the fabric of communities, you end up with families being separated, you end up with kids whose parents don't pick them up from daycare and they end up in foster homes."
Patrick Williams and Chris Manning contributed to this article. ICE did not immediately respond to requests for information. Photo courtesy of ICE.