- Associated Press - Thursday, June 4, 2015

SPOKANE, Wash. (AP) - An Eastern Washington apple company will pay $2.25 million in civil penalties to the federal government for violations of a law requiring it to verify the eligibility of people to work in the United States, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said Thursday.

Broetje Orchards LLC of Prescott, Washington, a major apple producer located east of the Tri-Cities, reached the settlement with ICE this week. The penalty amount is an ICE record for Washington state, the agency said.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement said it audited the company’s records last summer and found that nearly 950 of its employees over several years were suspected of not being authorized to work in the United States.

Under the settlement, Broetje Orchards did not admit to any criminal wrongdoing. But the company did acknowledge that it continued to employ unauthorized workers after being advised they did not have permission to work in the United States.

“We are pleased to put this process behind us and to get back to the business of growing fruit,” the company said in a press release.

“This case nevertheless highlights what is clearly a dysfunctional and broken immigration system,” the company said, and urged Congress to pass immigration reform.

“The agricultural labor shortage needs to be fixed, and now,” the company said.

Washington is the nation’s largest apple-growing state, and the industry hires thousands of workers each year to harvest and process the fruit. A large number of the workers come from Mexico and are in the U.S. illegally.

The settlement called for Broetje to pay a lump sum to ICE. On paying the fine, Broetje will be fully released from any further civil or criminal liability in this case, ICE said.

“ICE weighs various factors when considering the appropriate penalty, including the interests of the community and local economy,” said Raphael Sanchez, the agency’s chief lawyer in Seattle. “We believe this is a reasonable conclusion that holds this business accountable, but does not cripple its ability to provide jobs to lawful workers.”

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