Seven immigration agents filed into a 7-Eleven store before dawn Wednesday, waited for people to go through the checkout line and told arriving customers and a driver delivering beer to wait outside. A federal inspection was underway, they said.
Within 20 minutes, they verified that the cashier had a valid green card and served notice on the owner to produce hiring records in three days.
The well-rehearsed scene, executed with quiet efficiency in Los Angeles’ Koreatown, played out at about 100 7-Eleven stores in 17 states and the District of Columbia, a rolling operation that officials called the largest immigration action against an employer under Donald Trump’s presidency.
The so-called employment audits and interviews with store workers could lead to criminal charges or fines. And they appeared to open a new front in Trump’s expansion of immigration enforcement, which has already brought a 40% increase in deportation arrests and pledges to spend billions of dollars on a border wall with Mexico.
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 Derek Benner, acting head of ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations, which oversees cases against employers.
After inspections, officials plan 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,” Benner 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. The 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 other enforcement efforts that have marked Trump’s first year in office, Wednesday’s actions were aimed squarely at store owners and managers, though 21 workers across the country were arrested on suspicion of being in the country illegally.
Illegal hiring is rarely prosecuted, partly because investigations are time-consuming and convictions are difficult to achieve because employers can claim they were duped by fraudulent documents or intermediaries. Administrative fines are discounted by some as a business cost.
George W. Bush’s administration aggressively pursued criminal investigations against employers in its final 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.