In the early morning hours Wednesday, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) special agents served notices of employment verification inspection to 98 7-Eleven franchise stores across the country.
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This was the biggest worksite operation conducted since Trump took office, according to ICE.
"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 ICE Deputy Director Thomas Homan.
Historically, these types of in inspections, known as I-9 audit notices, are down, but ICE leadership has said this is the beginning of more to come. (An I-9 is the form employers are required to fill out after inspecting work eligibility documents.) Over the past nine years, there was a peak in 2013 with 3,127 I-9 annual inspections. There were 1,360 inspections in fiscal year 2017.
"ICE will have no choice but to conduct at-large arrests in local neighborhoods and at worksites, which will inevitably result in additional collateral arrests, instead of focusing on arrests at jails and prisons where transfers are safer for ICE officers and the community," said Homan in October in response to California's sanctuary law.
Homan is leading the agency while he awaits confirmation to his appointment as director.
"Businesses that hire illegal workers are a pull factor for illegal immigration and we are working hard to remove this magnet," he added in a statement today.
Under the current administration, all workers encountered during these investigations who are unauthorized to remain in the U.S. are subject to administrative arrest and removal from the country, according to ICE.
Twenty-one people who were suspected of being in the U.S. illegally were arrested and given notices to appear in immigration court as a result of today's actions.
The notices at 7-Eleven franchises were served in Washington, D.C., California, Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Maryland, Michigan, Missouri, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Washington.
Sixteen of the stores were in the New York City area.
7-Eleven corporate said it was aware that ICE had taken actions at certain franchise locations, but that franchisees are "independent business owners and are solely responsible for their employees including deciding who to hire and verifying their eligibility to work in the United States."
"This means that all store associates in a franchised store are employees of the Franchisee and not 7-Eleven, Inc. As part of the 7-Eleven franchise agreement, 7-Eleven requires all franchise business owners to comply with all federal, state and local employment laws. This obligation requires 7-Eleven franchisees to verify work eligibility in the US for all of their prospective employees prior to hiring. 7-Eleven takes compliance with immigration laws seriously and has terminated the franchise agreements of franchisees convicted of violating these laws," added 7-Eleven, Inc. in a press statement.
Today’s notices were a follow-up to a 2013 investigation into various 7-Eleven franchises that 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.
This comes at a time of a surge in immigration arrests.
In fiscal year 2017, ICE arrested 143,470 people on immigration violations -- the highest number of these type of arrests over the past three years. There were 30 percent more immigration-related arrests in 2017 compared to the previous year, according to ICE’s end-of-year report.
Arrests for non-criminal immigration violations rose more than 50 percent compared to last year.
"Clearly the Trump Administration has made it a priority to target for enforcement action non-criminal aliens - and in the case of workplace enforcement - undocumented or unauthorized immigrants who are working and likely paying taxes. What people need to understand is that if ICE is using their limited resources going after those who pose no risk to our Nation, then fewer resources will be available to address violent crime, terrorism and other serious national security issues," said John Cohen, ABC News contributor and former counter-terrorism coordinator for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS)
In December, when ICE announced its end-of-year arrest numbers, Homan said the public can expect more workforce enforcement.
"We’re going to go back to holding employers accountable,” he said. “It’s about removing that magnet."
He has also said that the agency would increase workplace enforcement by "four to five times" the current rate.
A notice of inspection, which is what was issued today, alerts business owners that ICE is going to audit their hiring records to determine whether or not they are in compliance with the law. Employers are required to produce their company’s I-9s within three business days, according to ICE.
If employers are found not to be in compliance, it can result in civil fines and potential criminal prosecution.
Critics have accused the administration of using these tactics to strike fear in the immigrant community.
"This is yet another example of the escalating attacks from the Trump administration and its rogue ICE agency on immigrant communities. This is a family separation tactic — nothing more, nothing less — meant to stoke fear in the hearts of our community," Cristóbal Gutierrez, employment legal advocate at Make the Road New York, said in a statement.
"Workers have rights in this country, regardless of immigration status," he said, and encouraged all workers to review their rights in case of an ICE raid.
Aaron Katersky contributed to this story.