U.S. immigration agents descended on dozens of 7-Eleven stores before dawn Wednesday, checking on workers’ immigration status in what officials described as the largest operation against an employer under Donald Trump’s presidency.
When federal immigration agents raided dozens of 7-Eleven stores across the nation this week, it was the first, high-profile example of how the Trump administration is changing work site enforcement.
Previous administrations focused either on employers or workers, but President Trump is targeting both groups with an all-of-the above approach.
The raids on 98 convenience stores in 17 states before dawn Wednesday kick-started audits of the owners about their hiring practices and whether managers knowingly employed undocumented immigrants. Agents also arrested 21 undocumented immigrants working at the stores and immediately started deportation proceedings.
“This shows that there are no longer any priorities. Everyone is a priority,” said Muzaffar Chishti of the Migration Policy Institute, a non-partisan group that researches immigration issues.
Thomas Homan, acting director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), has said he will “significantly” increase work site raids because immigrants will be more hesitant to illegally enter the U.S. if there are no jobs for them. He told the conservative Heritage Foundation in October that he ordered ICE agents to ramp up their work site investigations by “four to five times.”
He said agents will not target one side of the employment equation, as past administrations did.
“We’re going to do it a little different,” he said. “We’re going to prosecute employers that knowingly hire illegal aliens, (and) we’re going to detain and remove the illegal alien workers.”
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Under President George W. Bush, large-scale raids of companies became the norm, with images of federal agents sweeping through immigrant-heavy industries across the country. ICE swooped into meatpacking plants, poultry processors, fruit suppliers and other businesses.
Employers were largely spared, and fines plummeted during the Bush administration, according to a Congressional Research Service report.
The government issued 312 fines totaling more than $3.3 million in fiscal year 2000, the report said. By fiscal year 2002 — the first full year under Bush — the government issued 91 fines for $485,000. Employers were fined so rarely that the government recorded zero fines in all of 2006.
Once President Obama moved into the White House, ICE was told to change course and focus primarily on employers. The agency started more reviews of forms that all employees must sign verifying their identity and immigration status.
In 2008, the Bush administration’s last year, ICE conducted 503 such audits of employers and barred one from winning federal contracts, according to the Migration Policy Institute. During the next four years under Obama, the agency averaged more than 2,000 audits a year and barred a total of 726 businesses from getting federal contracts.
That led to more fines, arrests, convictions and jail terms for employers.
Both approaches have their shortcomings, said Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies at the Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates for lower levels of legal and illegal immigration.
Vaughan said the worker roundups under Bush largely ignored the employers’ role in helping undocumented immigrants get jobs. And each raid created a “public relations headache,” followed by heartbreaking stories about the families affected.
“You’ve got people climbing out of windows, running down the street,” Vaughan said. “It becomes fodder for stories of overzealous enforcement. It leads to outrage, fear and criticism that manifests itself in congressional hearings and newspaper stories.”
She said the Obama approach also had problems by focusing on employers and shutting down businesses, which meant workers could avoid punishment and just find another job.
“Audits are good because they’re cost effective,” she said. “But under that approach, (employers) may fire their worker, but they end up going to another employer down the street. It doesn’t hold the workers accountable.”
Vaughan said the combined approach now being used by Trump is the best way to hit both sides equally. She said talking about building a wall along the southern border and hiring more Border Patrol agents misses the most important point: Undocumented immigrants will risk anything to get into the United States if they can find a job.
“As long as people think they can get here and get a job, they’re going to keep coming,” she said.
Chishti, of the Migration Policy Institute, noted another benefit to the 7-Eleven raids and the others sure to follow.
“This administration thrives on public relations,” he said. “This creates a huge stir and people around the country are saying, ‘Oh my God.’ It makes immigrants feel uncomfortable in their own skin. And it creates a public perception for the base that a new day in immigration enforcement has really dawned.”
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