ICE descends on dozens of 7-Eleven stores

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Immigration agents descended on dozens of 7-Eleven convenience stores before dawn Wednesday to begin checking on employees’ immigration status in what officials described as the largest operation against an employer under Donald Trump’s presidency.

Agents targeted about 100 stores nationwide, broadening an investigation that began four years ago with a case against a franchisee on New York’s Long Island. The audits could lead to criminal charges or fines over the stores’ hiring practices. Twenty-one people suspected of being in the U.S. illegally were arrested.

The action appears to open a new front in Trump’s expansion of immigration enforcement, which has already brought a 40 percent increase in deportation arrests.

Derek Benner, a top official at U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said Wednesday’s operation was “the first of many” and “a harbinger of what’s to come” for employers.

“This is what we’re gearing up for this year and what you’re going to see more and more of is these large-scale compliance inspections, just for starters,” said Benner, acting head of ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations, which oversees cases against employers.

In Los Angeles’ Koreatown, seven agents who arrived in unmarked cars closed a store for 20 minutes to explain the audit to the only employee there, a clerk with a valid green card. Agents told arriving customers that the store was closed briefly for a federal inspection. A driver delivering cases of beer was told to wait in the parking lot.

The manager was in Bangladesh and the owner, reached by phone, told the clerk to accept whatever documents were served. Agents said they would return Tuesday for employment records they requested.

After the inspections, officials planned to look at whether the cases warrant administrative action or criminal investigations, Benner said.

“It’s not going to be limited to large companies or any particular industry, big medium and small,” he said.

7-Eleven Stores Inc., based in Irving, Texas, said in a statement that the owners of its franchises are responsible for hiring and verifying work eligibility.

Th e chain with more than 8,600 convenience stores in the U.S. said it has previously ended franchise agreements for owners convicted of breaking employment laws.

Unlike many previous enforcement efforts, Wednesday’s actions were aimed squarely at management.

Illegal hiring is rarely prosecuted, partly because investigations are timeconsuming and convictions are diffi cult to achieve because employers can claim they were duped by fraudulent documents or intermediaries. Administrative fi nes are discounted by some as a business cost.

“We need to make sure that employers are on notice that we are going to come out and ensure that they’re being compliant,” Benner said.

George W. Bush’s administration aggressively pursued criminal investigations against employers in its fi nal years with dramatic pre-dawn shows of force and large numbers of worker arrests. In 2008, agents arrived by helicopter at the Agriprocessors meatpacking plant in Postville, Iowa, and detained nearly 400 workers. Last month, Trump commuted the 27-year prison sentence of Sholom Rubashkin, former chief executive of what was the nation’s largest kosher meatpacking operation.

Barack Obama’s administration more than doubled employer audits to more than 3,100 a year in 2013, shunning Bush’s flashier approach. John Sandweg, an acting ICE director under Obama, said significant fines instilled fear in employers and draining resources from other enforcement priorities.

Wednesday’s operation arose from a 2013 investigation that resulted in charges against nine 7-Eleven franchisees and managers in New York and Virginia. Eight have pleaded guilty and were ordered to pay more than $2.6 million in back wages, and the ninth was arrested in November.

San Marcos Daily Record

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