Broetje Orchards of Washington State, one of the country’s largest apple growers, has agreed to pay a $2.25 million fine for hiring illegal immigrants. The fine is one of the largest ever levied against an agricultural concern, according to report today by the Wall Street Journal.

A spokesman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement told the Journal that the civil penalty was levied against Broetje for employing nearly 950 people who weren’t authorized to work in the U.S.

Ralph and Cheryl Broetje

Ralph and Cheryl Broetje in an undated photo.

Broetje Orchards issued a statement through its law firm:

Broetje Orchards has reached an agreement to conclude an immigration audit with United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement.  The audit involved the records of people working at the company over a period of several years.

The settlement calls for Broetje Orchards to pay an agreed civil penalty of $2.25 million.  There was no admission of wrongdoing and no allegations or findings of criminal conduct.

“We are pleased to put this process behind us and to get back to the business of growing fruit,” said Broetje Orchards’ Management Team.  “This case nevertheless highlights what is clearly a dysfunctional and broken immigration system.  We urge our industry, and our state’s congressional delegation, to take the lead to support and pass immigration reform legislation.  The agricultural labor shortage needs to be fixed, and now.”

The company will not be making any further comment beyond this media release.

According to the Journal, the case dates back to a 2012 audit by the enforcement agency. At the time, ICE investigators identified about 1,700 workers who were suspected of being in the U.S. illegally, the spokesman said.

The Journal reported:

In ensuing years, Broetje management negotiated with the U.S. government and lobbied in Congress to avert a high-profile raid of its facilities by authorities and to spare longtime workers, according to sources familiar with the matter.

The ICE spokesman said that the agency found last year that the company had continued to employ nearly 950 immigrants who lack proper work authorization.

“All businesses are expected to comply with the law and to ensure the information provided on a form I-9 (employment form) is accurate,” said ICE Director Sarah R. Saldaña.

The Journal said Broetje is the largest employer in Walla Walla County, Washington State. It has more than 1,000 permanent employees and up to 2,800 during harvest season. Many of them live on the company’s vast grounds in Prescott, Wash., where the grower built housing, school and a day care center for workers.

Founded by Ralph and Cheryl Broetje, the company operates more than 5,000 acres of apples and cherries. The Broetjes have been widely recognized for their innovative growing practices and philanthropy and they have been strong advocates of immigration reform.  Good Fruit Grower named Ralph Broetje Grower of the Year in 2008.