WASHINGTON (CNN) - In a signal that the Obama administration is changing tactics in dealing with illegal immigration, hundreds of businesses were notified Wednesday that federal authorities will be taking a closer look at their employment records to determine if they are hiring illegal aliens.
Kelly Nantel, a spokesman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said businesses in every state and industry are being audited, "from agriculture-related businesses, to service businesses, to high-tech industry and everything in between." The companies were selected based on leads from ICE offices around the country.
On Wednesday, 652 audit notices were issued. By comparison, only 503 such notices were issued in all of fiscal year 2008, according to an agency statement.
The audits are a way to remind businesses that "the integrity of their employment records is an important as the integrity of their tax files or their banking records," Nantel said. They are also a means of identifying employers who knowingly hire illegal immigrants.
Former President George W. Bush's administration favored another tactic - conducting workplace raids on companies suspected of employing illegals. But the raids were controversial, with critics charging they separated families and disrupted communities.
President Barack Obama has said his strategy will focus on employers, but Nantel said the raids have not been put on hold, although she was not able to provide information on the number of raids or number of illegal immigrants arrested.
Businesses who Wednesday received notice of an audit will have three days to produce I-9 forms for every employee. The form requires employers to review and record each individual's identity documents and determine whether the documents appear to be genuine. ICE agents and auditors will inspect the forms looking for missing and suspect documents, and cases of identity theft. Violations could lead to criminal or administrative penalties against employers or employees, or a full-blown ICE investigation.
"This is one of the more powerful tools we have to help push a culture of compliance," said Nantel.