U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents showed up at dozens of 7-Eleven stores before dawn Wednesday to interview employees and deliver audit notifications, carrying out what the agency said was the largest operation targeting an employer since President Trump took office.
ICE said its agents targeted 98 stores and made 21 arrests, describing the operation as a warning to other companies who may have unauthorized workers on their payroll.
"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," said Thomas Homan, the agency's top official, in a statement.
"Businesses that hire illegal workers are a pull factor for illegal immigration and we are working hard to remove this magnet," Homan's statement said. "ICE will continue its efforts to protect jobs for American workers by eliminating unfair competitive advantages for companies that exploit illegal immigration."
Trump has long pledged to crack down on businesses that hire undocumented workers and increase deportations. Since his inauguration ICE agents have made 40 percent more arrests.
The agency said it sent agents Wednesday to deliver audit notifications and conduct interviews at 6 a.m., temporarily shutting down franchises in Washington, D.C., and 17 states: California, Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Maryland, Michigan, Missouri, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas and Washington.
Operators of four 7-Elevens stores in Pennsylvania – authorities declined to provide their locations — were served with what are called notices of inspection, or NOIs, which ICE agents use to check that store employees are operating with proper work authorizations. Nationwide, 21 people suspected of being in the U.S. illegally were arrested and given notices to appear in immigration court.
"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," said Thomas D. Homan, ICE deputy director.
A 2013 investigation into 7-Elevens resulted in the arrest of nine franchise owners and managers for conspiring to commit wire fraud, stealing identities, and concealing and harboring illegal aliens employed at their stores, ICE officials said. All but one, who remained a fugitive until his arrest in November 2017, pleaded guilty and were ordered to pay more than $2.6 million in restitution for back wages stolen from workers, officials said.
Irving, Texas-based 7-Eleven has more than 60,000 stores worldwide, according to its website. The company did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
ICE described Wednesday's operation as a follow-up effort to ensure that 7-Eleven is in compliance with hiring laws.
Federal agents in 2013 arrested nine 7-Eleven franchise owners and managers for "conspiring to commit wire fraud, stealing identities and concealing and harboring illegal aliens employed at their stores," according to the agency.
ICE said all but one pleaded guilty and were ordered to pay more than $2.6 million in back wages stolen from workers.
"We are going to be doing more of this work and dedicating more resources to make sure business are complying with the law," said Dani Bennett, an ICE spokesperson. "This is a demonstration of our commitment to enforcing the law."
Store owners and managers will have three days to provide the agency with information about the immigration status of its employees, Bennett said.