Federal immigration agents targeted nearly 100 7-Eleven stores across the nation for audits and inspections Wednesday, including several locations in Los Angeles, as the Trump administration ramps up workplace raids to punish employers hiring people who are in the country illegally.
A total of 21 people were arrested on suspicion of being in the U.S. illegally as Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents served inspection notices at convenience stores in 17 states and the District of Columbia.
Administration officials argue workplace raids will decrease illegal immigration by placing pressure on employers with fines and possible criminal charges. And to make its point Wednesday, the Trump administration drew a bull's-eye on one of the country's most prominent convenience store chains, whose outlets are staples of thousands of American neighborhoods.
"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," acting ICE Director Thomas D. Homan said in a statement.
But Wednesday's raids, which included three Los Angeles 7-Eleven franchises in Koreatown and one in Culver City, targeted workers too — sending a message that immigrants in the U.S. illegally will have to look over their shoulders while at their places of work.
Agents converged in the early morning on a 7-Eleven store on Beverly Boulevard, serving notices of inspection of employment records.
No arrests were made in Southern California, according to Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokeswoman Lori K. Haley, who declined to provide a list of the stores targeted for inspections.
News crews gathered outside the Beverly Boulevard store in Koreatown for several hours after the raid, stationing cameras on the sidewalk. Employees said their shifts had started at noon and that they could provide no information about the enforcement action.
Immigrants make up a large portion of the neighborhood's population, and local activists circulated an alert on NextDoor, the neighborhood messaging app, warning that immigration agents were in the area.
Elena Lopez, a local resident, said she was appalled when she heard agents had come to the convenience store in her quiet neighborhood.
"They're intimidating people — the owner, the workers and now the clients," Lopez said.
Imelda Vargas, who works for the dry cleaner across the street, said it wasn't right for immigration agents to target the store's workers.
"Everyone has the right to be here, to work," she said in Spanish.
The investigations in California concerned state Assemblyman David Chiu (D-San Francisco), who wrote a law signed by Gov. Jerry Brown in October that prohibits employers from allowing federal immigration agents on private business property without a judicial warrant.
ICE officials said they did not serve warrants during Wednesday's actions. "No warrants. We served administrative notices of I-9 inspection," Haley said.
"We'd been expecting raids like this when Trump declared war on our immigrant communities," Chiu said. "We'll be asking our state attorney general and the labor commissioner to look into whether our law was properly followed."
Workplace raids were once a widely used and widely feared immigration enforcement practice, but the Obama administration de-emphasized the tactic, a policy that drew criticism from conservatives. Under long-standing law, employers found to be employing workers in the country illegally can be fined and even criminally charged.
"Worksite enforcement is critical to controlling illegal immigration," said Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies at the Center for Immigration Studies, a think tank that pushes for stricter immigration rules. "When employers start to realize they can't get away with hiring illegal workers, that they stand to have their business disrupted because of illegal hiring, then they start doing due diligence and changing their hiring practices."
In recent months, Homan, the acting ICE head, has said that he wants to increase the agency's workplace enforcement by "by four to five times" to take away the economic "magnet" drawing immigrants to the U.S. But he made clear that the efforts would target not just employers, but workers too.
"Not only are we going to prosecute the employers that hire illegal workers, we're going to detain and remove the illegal alien workers," Homan said in an October appearance at an event sponsored by the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank.
ICE officials said Wednesday's probes were an extension of raids carried out under the Obama administration in 2013 against several 7-Eleven franchise owners who later pleaded guilty to operating an immigrant-exploitation scheme from their convenience stores.
In Wednesday's actions, agents served 98 7-Eleven franchises with notices of inspections of the stores' I-9 immigration forms, which employers are required to maintain on their employees' status, and also interviewed workers and managers.
"Today's service of [inspection notices] throughout the United States serves as a follow-up to ensure the company has taken the proper steps towards more responsible hiring and employment practices," the agency said in a statement.
The corporate management of 7-Eleven said franchise owners, not the corporation, are responsible for verifying whether potential employees are eligible to work in the United States.
"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," the company said in a statement. "This obligation requires 7-Eleven franchisees to verify work eligibility in the U.S. 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."
Los Angeles-based immigration attorney Angelo A. Paparelli said immigration officials weren't legally required to have reasonable suspicion in order to audit a company's I-9 records. He said fines can be steeper if a company is deemed a repeat violator of the law, which might be one reason officials would raid the same company more than once.
While declining to comment on 7-Eleven specifically, Paparelli said corporations that use the franchise model — placing more of the legal burden on local store owners — can still potentially be held liable.
"But that would vary on a case-by-case basis," Paparelli said.
Immigration advocates said sweeps such as those that occurred Wednesday also were part of the Obama administration's immigration enforcement strategy.
But targeting employers with sanctions doesn't work, said Winnie Kao, litigation director and senior staff attorney for the workers' rights program at Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Asian Law Caucus.
"Employer sanctions are a broken system," she said. "They terrorize workers, drive workers underground, and lead to workplace abuses and violations by unscrupulous employers. They also unfairly shift immigration enforcement to employers."
5:35 p.m.: The article was updated with additional background on previous enforcement actions, as well as comments from political officials and immigration analysts.
10:55 a.m.: The article has been updated throughout with staff reporting and comments from acting ICE Director Thomas D. Homan and 7-Eleven.