Immigration agents carried out pre-dawn raids at dozens of 7-Eleven stores across the country Wednesday, opening employment audits and interviewing workers in a massive worksite enforcement operation.
Agents targeted about 100 stores coast-to-coast, in the enforcement phase of an investigation that began four years ago with a 7-Eleven franchisee on New York's Long Island, reports the Associated Press.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials said the operation was a "harbinger of what's to come," referring to the Trump administration's intent to investigate employers who knowingly hire illegal immigrants or discriminate against U.S. workers.
"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," Derek Benner, a top ICE official, told the AP. "From there, we will look at whether these cases warrant an administrative posture or criminal investigation."
The Trump administration has repeatedly signaled that it will make worksite enforcement a high priority within its broader immigration agenda. ICE Acting Direct Thomas Homan said in October that he wants immigration agents to devote "four to five times" more time on illegal hiring investigations to crack down on employers and unauthorized workers alike.
Under the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations, worksite enforcement typically consisted of high-profile raids on companies committing egregious violations of labor and immigration law. In a prominent example in 2008, immigration agents descended by helicopter on the Agriprocessors meatpacking plant in Postville, Iowa, and detained nearly 400 illegal workers.
Such raids garnered significant attention, but worksite enforcement remained inconsistent, partly due to the fact that illegal hiring cases are time-consuming and difficult to prosecute. In the Agriprocessors case, federal prosecutors ended up dropping the immigration charges against plant manager Sholom Rubashkin in favor of a separate fraud and money laundering case.
Immigration officials say the Trump administration is implementing a new strategy for worksite enforcement, one that comes down harder on employers who give illegal immigrants an incentive to come to the U.S. in the first place. Though agents arrested 21 people suspected of being in the country illegally during Wednesday's 7-Eleven sweeps, their primary aim was to check the hiring records of the stores.
"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, according to the AP. "For those that don't, we're going to take some very aggressive steps in terms of criminal investigations to make sure that we address them and hold them accountable."
7-Eleven Stores Inc. operates more than 8,000 stores in the U.S. Representatives for Irving, Texas-based company have not publicly commented on the ICE audits.
Benner's comments echoed those of his boss, Homan, who in October told an audience at the conservative Heritage Foundation to expect more audits and raids on non-compliant businesses.
"We're taking worksite enforcement very hard this year," he said. "We've already increased the number of inspections and worksite operations, you're going to see that significantly increase this next fiscal year."
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