U.S. immigration agents arrested 21 people suspected of living in the country illegally in a predawn sweep targeting dozens of 7-Eleven stores across the country.
The operation marks the expansion of an investigation into a string of New York and Virginia franchises first opened in 2013, when it was discovered several managers there used stolen identities to employ at least 100 people in the country illegally.
Despite the arrests, the early morning raids were specifically aimed at management.
Agents on Wednesday opened employment audits and interviewed workers at nearly 100 7-Eleven locations, which could lead to criminal charges and fines over the stores’ hiring practices.
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The move appears to be the latest in the Trump administration’s crackdown on illegal immigration, which has already brought a 40% increase in deportation arrests.
“Today’s actions send a strong message to U.S. businesses that hire and employ an illegal workforce: ICE will enforce the law, and if you are found to be breaking the law, you will be held accountable,” ICE Acting Director Tom Homan said in a statement.
“Businesses that hire illegal workers are a pull factor for illegal immigration and we are working hard to remove this magnet.”
Immigration advocates from New York to Los Angeles condemned the latest raids as only bringing fear into communities.
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“This is a family separation tactic — nothing more, nothing less — meant to stoke fear in the hearts of our community,” Cristóbal Gutierrez, an employment legal advocate at Make the Road New York, said in a statement. “We also know that workers have rights in this country, regardless of immigration status.”
“Persecuting workers at their place of employment is the wrong approach and only hurts families, creates chaos locally, and negatively impacts our nation’s economy,” Angelica Salas, executive director of Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights in California, said.
7-Eleven, which boasts more than 60,000 stores worldwide, in a statement emailed to the Washington Post said the company is not responsible for the hiring decision of its franchise owners.
“As part of the 7-Eleven franchise agreement, 7-Eleven requires all franchise and business owners to comply with all federal, state and local employment laws,” the statement reads. “7-Eleven takes compliance with immigration laws seriously and has terminated the franchise agreements of franchisees convicted of violating these laws.”
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Derek Benner, a top official with U.S Immigration and Customs Enforcement said Wednesday’s operation is a “harbinger of what’s to come” for American 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,” he said.
“From there, we will look at whether these cases warrant an administrative posture or criminal investigations.”
ICE’s acting head of Homeland Security Relations noted there is no numerical goal involved and that all companies are open to such raids.
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“It’s not going to be limited to large companies or any particular industry, big, medium or small,”Benner explained. “It’s going to be inclusive of everything we see out there.”
The raids come on the heels of a bipartisan meeting on immigration, where lawmakers reviewed border security and discussed DACA reform. A federal judge late Tuesday ruled to block the Trump’s Administration’s efforts to appeal the Obama-era measure.
With News Wire Services
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Jessica Schladebeck, ELIZABETH ELIZALDE