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Holly Culhane

It is easy to understand why business owners and managers may be confused when it comes to hiring illegal immigrants. The sands seem to be shifting under our feet regarding the rights of people who have illegally entered the United States.

While reforming federal immigration law is snagged by congressional infighting, restrictions seem to be easing. A 2012 executive order now allows people 31 years of age and younger, who were brought illegally into the U.S. as children by their parents, to legally live and work in America. Last year, California lawmakers passed legislation allowing illegal immigrants to obtain drivers licenses.

Just a few weeks ago, the California Supreme Court went a step further by unanimously ruling that Sergio Garcia could be admitted to the California bar and allowed to practice law.

Garcia, 36, was brought illegally to the U.S. from Mexico when he was 17 months old. In subsequent years, the family moved back and forth across the border. When Garcia turned 17, he permanently returned to the U.S. and applied for a legal visa, using his father, who had become a permanent resident, as a sponsor. The visa application was accepted in 1995, but remains stuck in a backlog of similar applications.

Meanwhile, Garcia continued his education, earning a law degree from Cal Northern School of Law in 2009 and passing the California bar exam that same year.

The January California Supreme Court ruling was based on a recent state law that extends California bar privileges to illegal immigrants. But federal law still prevents a company from hiring them.

The conflict between state and federal laws and the inability of Congress to pass immigration reform have placed California employers in a difficult position.

And despite the Obama administration's limited easing of immigration rules, it has increased the auditing of U.S. companies and the deportation of illegal immigrants. Many believe this increased enforcement is intended to pressure Congress to reform the immigration system.

Since January 2009, the U.S. reportedly has audited at least 10,000 companies and imposed more than $100 million in administrative and criminal fines. It is common for a company with several employees to face a bill totaling many thousands of dollars.

Lori Scialabba, acting director of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service, reported in a recent news release that 500,000 U.S. companies are using E-Verify, an online government program that instantly checks the eligibility status of job applicants.

But E-Verify does not provide a company with 100 percent protection in the wake of an audit. It does not check the status of workers hired years ago. It does not detect bookkeeping errors that can still expose employers to fines.

Many small companies increasingly are turning to outsourcing firms that have more extensive and sophisticated resources to check the eligibility status of all workers and review their record-keeping.

Now more than ever, employers must take care to hire only people who are legally in the U.S. and eligible to work. To disregard the rules -- either intentionally or negligently -- will expose a company to fines and criminal penalties that would be better invested in the company's human resources, or growth of their firm.

Holly Culhane is president of the Bakersfield-based human resources consulting firm P.A.S. Associates and P.A.S. Investigations. She can be contacted through her website and through the P.A.S. Facebook page. These are her opinions, not necessarily those of The Californian.