Workers at Zion Market in the San Diego community of Kearny Mesa who are living in the U.S. illegally were taken into custody Wednesday while special agents from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement executed a federal search warrant at the business.
ICE spokeswoman Lauren Mack said many of the 26 individuals detained during the operation were released by that evening, although she could not confirm whether all of the workers were released from custody.
“The intent was they would be detained and released today pending the outcome of their immigration case,” Mack said.
Zion Market front manager Yongho Jun said a small group formed outside the large Korean supermarket in opposition to the ICE enforcement action.
“There were about five to six people and they held a sign saying ‘human rights,’ ” Jun said. He said someone from the group also left information on how people could find out about their legal rights and report immigration enforcement activity to a 24-hour hotline.
“Many of our employees need this information from this flier now,” Jun said.
The group was from the San Diego Rapid Response Network, a coalition of human rights and service organizations, attorneys and community leaders who help immigrants understand their legal rights.
“The San Diego Rapid Response Network was called at 9:30 a.m. about the raid at Zion Market,” group member Kate Clark said in a statement. “As SDRRN does with all calls, dispatchers went on-site to verify the activity and hand out information to workers. SDRRN is providing emergency preparedness sessions to impacted families tomorrow.”
Jun said he believed the employees detained by agents from ICE Homeland Security Investigations were mostly Asian and Latino.
“All I know is that they arrested 26 from here earlier today,” Jun said, “and now we are really, really busy. They arrested our workers.”
David Shaw, the HSI special agent in charge for San Diego, said the target of the investigation was the employer and not the employees.
“Honestly, if we didn’t encounter any employees, it wouldn’t make a difference for our case,” Shaw said. “Our case is based on the employer.”
Shaw said the execution of the federal search warrant was the culmination of a yearlong investigation, but the employer had not yet been arrested or charged.
“One of the things we’re trying to do, obviously, is protect U.S. jobs,” Shaw said, “but it’s also a national security issue.”
The investigation began with an audit of the company’s I-9 forms — workplace documents that verify whether someone is eligible to work in the U.S., he said. The special agent emphasized that his unit focuses on criminal investigations.
“So, if someone is smuggled into the country,” Shaw said, “and all of the sudden you pay me $10,000 to get into the country and now you don’t have the $10,000, well, now, guess what? I’m going to make you work, so it becomes a trafficking case too.”
Mack said the Enforcement and Removal Operations arm of ICE also assisted with the operation.
In 2018, HSI opened 6,848 work site investigations, compared with 1,691 in 2017, according to a news release about the operation.
Fry writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.