By PAMELA HARTMAN

It was a chaotic scene. A year ago, 100 armed immigration agents stormed Micro Solutions Enterprises in Van Nuys. They forced all of the company's workers and officers to stand against a wall as they checked them one by one. More than 100 suspected illegal immigrants were hauled into custody. The federal investigation into the company is still under way.

That was then. The Obama administration this month ushered in what promises to be a new era in immigration law enforcement, sending letters not SWAT teams to 652 U.S. firms suspected of possible immigration law violations. Under this new strategy, the government will target suspect companies through extensive audits of employee records, followed by fines and potential criminal liability if a company knowingly hired unlawful workers.

The Obama administration's shift away from disruptive workplace raids is a welcome change that could set the stage for broader immigration reform. Still, under the new rules of engagement, Southland companies should be prepared for a potential onslaught of government audits.

As chair of the Immigration Section of the Los Angeles County Bar Association, and a practicing immigration attorney, I frequently field questions from employers seeking guidance on what to do with a valued employee with questionable immigration status. The Obama administration's enforcement strategy will not resolve the difficult issues that arise in the hiring and retention of employees.

What the Obama strategy hopefully will do is prod a more civilized debate on immigration, by promising a more cooperative, collaborative approach to immigration enforcement issues. Witness as one prominent example how the administration handled its investigation of L.A.-based clothing manufacturer American Apparel Inc., which recently announced that it had complied with a government audit of its hiring records. Even though Immigration and Custom Enforcement's audit found 1,800 employees with immigration problems, it appears that the company was able to work out a solution with the government that avoided an ugly raid and the bad publicity that would accompany it.

'Holistic approach'

Charles Kuck, past president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, called the Obama plan a more "holistic approach" to immigration enforcement.

"If you randomly start auditing companies, people are going to fall into compliance more readily," Kuck predicted. "This needs to happen before we can get comprehensive immigration reform. It shows you can enforce the law and the law will be workable."

L.A. attorney Catherine Haight, who assists employers facing government audits, echoed Kuck's sentiments.

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