Federal agents raided 7-Eleven stores across the East Coast on Monday after prosecutors revealed felony indictments accusing franchise owners of operating an immigrant-exploitation scheme from at least 14 of their convenience stores for more than a decade.
In an enterprise that one prosecutor likened to a "modern-day plantation system," nine New York and Virginia franchise owners were accused of employing immigrants who were in the country illegally at their stores, taking their pay and forcing the immigrants to pay rent in housing they owned.
"Immigrant workers were routinely forced, upon threat of job loss or deportation, to work upwards of 100 hours a week, to live only in the houses the defendants owned, and were given only a small percentage of the money they earned," Loretta E. Lynch, U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York, told reporters.
The raids were described as "the initial results of an ongoing investigation into the employment and exploitation of illegal immigrants at 7-Eleven franchise stores nationwide," according to a statement from the U.S. attorney's office. A spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Margaret Chabris, spokeswoman for 7-Eleven, said the company "is aware of today’s activity against certain franchise owners and has been cooperating with federal authorities during their investigation."
In a company statement, 7-Eleven said it "will take aggressive actions to audit the employment status of all its franchisees’ employees."
The indictments stated that the 7-Eleven franchise owners stole American identities from more than 20 children, senior citizens and dead people to file payroll information with 7-Eleven's corporate purse holders and with federal tax officials.
"Finally, these defendants ruthlessly exploited their immigrant employees, stealing their wages and requiring them to live in unregulated boarding houses" where they had to pay rent to their bosses in cash, U.S. Atty. Lynch said.
Officials said the scheme dated back to 2000 and ensnared more than 50 immigrants at 10 7-Eleven stores in New York and four stores in Virginia. The indictment did not specify the workers’ nationalities, although several local media organizations have reported they are mainly from Pakistan.
Using civil forfeiture laws more commonly used to seize cash and property from drug dealers, federal prosecutors moved to seize the franchise rights to the stores and five houses in New York worth more than $1.3 million — a record-sized grab for an immigration bust, according to the Department of Homeland Security.
As part of Monday's raids, federal officials with warrants swept about 30 7-Eleven stores across the country to perform searches and inspections. According to court documents cited by NBC-4 New York, immigration officials also detained more than a dozen workers who had been brought into the country illegally.
"The franchise owners knowingly and repeatedly employed an illegal workforce and abused and exploited that workforce for more than 13 years,” said James T. Hayes, Jr., special agent in charge with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations division.
“This charged criminal scheme had a vast detrimental effect on both the employees who were overworked and cheated out of wages, as well as the more than 25 American citizens whose lives were upended by the theft of their identities in furtherance of the scheme," Hayes said.
According to a news release, the defendants include a married couple, Farrukh and Bushra Baig, who owned, co-owned and/or controlled 12 of the 7-Eleven franchise stores in Long Island, N.Y., and Virginia; and Zahid Baig and Shannawaz Baig — Farrukh Baig’s brothers — who helped to manage and control the stores.
They were assisted by three more defendants, Malik Yousaf, Tariq Rana and Ramon Nanas.
Officials said Ahzar Zia and Ummar Uppal, brothers who were indicted separately, owned and controlled two other Suffolk County 7-Eleven franchise stores.
The defendants are charged with wire fraud conspiracy, harboring aliens and aggravated identity theft and face more than 20 years in prison if convicted of all the charges, officials said.