If you own a business or work in HR, you’re no doubt familiar with I-9 forms. What you may not be aware of is how much trouble this seemingly simple document can cause unsuspecting companies.

With increasingly strict U.S. immigration laws and higher fines for violations, the I-9 is more important than ever. Failure to maintain compliance can be costly—and in some cases, even jeopardize the future of a business.

The good news is that there’s plenty your HR department can do to ensure things run smoothly. Read on for how to effectively complete, verify, store and manage I-9 forms.

What is an I-9 Form?

The I-9 form is a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) document used to verify an employee’s eligibility to work in the United States. All U.S. employers must promptly complete the form for every person they hire, both citizens and non-citizens alike.

The completed form is kept on file for three years or one year after employment ends— whichever is longer.

Failure to complete and retain I-9 forms is a violation of federal immigration law and can result in fines.

What is an I-9 Form Used For?

The I-9 form is used to ensure that an employee is eligible to work in the United States.

Workers must present documentation that verifies their identities and proves that they are U.S. citizens or nationals, lawful permanent residents or otherwise eligible for employment. In turn, employers must inspect and approve the documents.

The I-9 form was first introduced as part of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, but is receiving renewed attention due to stricter enforcement of immigration laws.

Documents Needed to Complete an I-9 Form

When completing an I-9 form, an employee must provide documents that prove identity and work eligibility.

Some documents are sufficient for establishing both identity and eligibility. An employee can complete the I-9 with one of the following documents, known as “List A” documents:

  • U.S. Passport
  • Permanent Resident Form or Alien Registration Receipt Card
  • Employment Authorization Document Card
  • Foreign passport accompanied by authorization to work for a specific employer
  • Passport from the Federated States of Micronesia or the Republic of Marshall Islands
  • Foreign passports accompanied by documents proving permanent resident status

Employees who don’t possess one of the above documents will have to provide two separate documents: one proving their identity (List B), and another verifying their work status (List C).

Acceptable List B documents to establish an employee’s identity include:

  • Driver’s license issued by the U.S. or Canadian government
  • Government-issued ID card
  • School ID card
  • Voter’s registration card
  • U.S. military card or draft record
  • Military dependent’s ID card
  • U.S. Coast Guard Merchant Mariner Card
  • Native American tribal document
  • Minors under the age of 18 may produce a school record or report card, doctor or hospital record, or daycare or nursery school record

In addition to the above documents, the employee will have to present one of the below List C documents to verify work eligibility:

  • U.S. Social Security Card
  • U.S. Birth Certificate
  • Certification of Birth Abroad
  • Native American tribal document
  • U.S. Citizen ID Card
  • Resident Citizen ID Card
  • Employment authorization document issued by the Department of Homeland Security

It’s important to note that employers can’t specify which specific documents an employee must produce for I-9 verification. Doing so could be a violation of laws protecting employee and immigrant rights and leave your company vulnerable to litigation.

The U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services (USCIS) provides a full and detailed list of accepted documents on its website.

Do I-9 Forms Expire?

In many cases, once an I-9 form is completed, an employer does not have to revisit the document for the duration of the individual’s employment.

Employers do not have to re-verify the following:

  • Documents provided by U.S. citizens and non-citizen nationals
  • Documents provided by lawful permanent residents
  • Any identity-specific documents

If a non-citizen employee possesses an employment authorization document with an expiration date, it is the employer’s responsibility to ensure that the employee remains eligible to work. Updated documents must be examined and documented throughout the course of employment.

Completing the I-9 Form: Three Sections

There are three sections to the I-9 form, which must be completed during specific points during the onboarding process.

Section 1: The Basics

The first section of the I-9 must be completed on an employee’s first day of work. Here, the employee provides basic information, such as their name, birth date, contact information and citizenship status.

Section 2: Review & Verification

The second section of the I-9 must be completed by the employer. While many HR departments prefer to do this along with section 1 on the first day of employment, federal law does not technically require this step until the third day.

It is the employer’s responsibility to ensure the legitimacy of provided documents. That said, the government doesn’t expect HR managers to be detectives, and it’s important to respect an employee’s rights and privacy when reviewing documents.

USCIS provides guidelines on how to properly and legally examine documents. Many HR departments use E-Verify, a free online tool provided by DHS.

After reviewing the employee’s documents, your HR representative will complete and sign section 2.

Section 3: Re-Verification

Typically used for non-citizens, the third section of the I-9 provides a space for re-verifying documents that expire during the course of employment. Remember, it is the employer’s responsibility to request and verify these documents.

Employee I-9 Forms: Steps for HR

To maintain compliance, your HR department should develop a formal process to ensure that I-9 forms and associated documents are correctly completed, verified and stored.

Measures should be put in place to conduct internal compliance audits, and all employees involved in the onboarding process should attend regular trainings to review procedures.

Because of the importance of I-9 forms and the number of moving parts involved, many companies choose to use an employee document management system. These digital systems can file, route and store documents securely and accurately, reducing the chances of costly human errors and cutting down on time-consuming paperwork.

For companies with multiple locations and employees who telecommute, a cloud-based document management system reduces interoffice miscommunication and misplaced files.

I-9 Compliance: Why It’s Important

Now more than ever, I-9 compliance is critical. As laws are strictly enforced, inspections by Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials are increasing.

Knowingly hiring a person who is not authorized to work in the U.S. is a violation of federal law and can come with steep fines. Failing to provide the necessary I-9 documentation can result in a penalty of up to $4,384 for the first offense and up to $21,916 for the third offense.

Are you audit-ready? To ensure compliance, it’s essential to maintain meticulous documentation and securely store I-9 forms and all associated documents.

Employee document management systems allow HR departments to access documents with the touch of a button. By autonomously monitoring each and every employees’ documents, these systems can flag soon-to-expire forms and missing data before a problem arises, effortlessly maintaining compliance.

How to Store and Manage I-9 Forms

Your company’s I-9 forms must be readily available for inspections by ICE, yet securely stored due to the sensitive nature of the employee data.

In the event of an inspection, even the most organized and closely monitored paperwork can prove insufficient. In addition to I-9 forms, ICE officials may request to review payroll, tax statements, current and past employee rosters, earning statements and more. Furthermore, companies may be fined not only for a missing or incomplete form but for retaining unnecessary documents.

Using an automated system is the most effective way to store and manage I-9 forms and other employee documents. An HR document management system can perform regular self-audits, ensuring that all files are up-to-date and expired documents are deleted.

Just as importantly, a digitized system will allow you to control who has access to I-9 forms and other sensitive employee data, avoiding employee data breaches and potentially costly lawsuits.

While there are a number of steps involved with I-9 forms, maintaining compliance and avoiding penalties is possible when HR departments implement strategic, proactive management systems.

Andrea Palumbo has over 20 years of experience in the HR and Payroll industry as both an HRIS client and vendor. Her teams are responsible for implementing and maintaining critical HR technology, data and timely processing of payroll for over 1300 employees globally. Andrea’s in-depth knowledge of HR Technology and sensitive employee data allow her to convey the benefits of having a robust HRIS and data management systems working together side by side.