A few times a week, I visit the 7-Eleven in my mid-city neighborhood to pick up a six-pack or a bag of snacks. What I see there looks to me like a pretty pure portrait of America. The place is open all hours and it serves all kinds: Parents buying after-school snacks for their children, laborers getting cold drinks on hot afternoons, neighbors stopping in for a few items before the evening meal. A family from India owns the franchise — mother, father, son and daughter, all of whom work long hours in the store.
On Jan. 10, U.S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement agents descended on 98 7-Elevens in 17 states, including California. It was a show of force that must have played well with the president’s anti-immigrant base. Although my mid-city outpost wasn’t targeted, a store in Culver City and three in Koreatown were. ICE didn’t detain anyone in Los Angeles, but 21 workers suspected of being in the country illegally were arrested nationwide.
“Today’s actions,” declared acting ICE director Thomas D. Homan, “send a strong message to U.S. businesses that hire and employ an illegal work force: ICE will enforce the law, and if you are found to be breaking the law, you will be held accountable.”
Oh, come on. The raids were nothing but political theater, intended to terrify the most vulnerable.
According to news reports, 7-Eleven owners will be “audited” for immigration offenses, but such audits don’t require dramatic predawn raids and rarely result in successful prosecution anyway. Business owners have access to lawyers, and it’s hard to prove they knowingly hired undocumented workers. Workers, on the other hand, can be deported with little or no due process.
It’s not that 7-Eleven owners and the company’s corporate leadership are without their issues. During the Obama administration, several franchisees in New York and Virginia were indicted for running a scheme in which, according to then-Atty. Gen. Loretta Lynch, “immigrant workers were routinely forced, upon threat of job loss or deportation, to work upwards of 100 hours a week.”
Closer to home, a group of Southern California franchise owners sued 7-Eleven in 2014 for “aggressive and discriminatory” practices, which included taking away stores for minor violations and turning them over to new owners for higher fees. Late last year, the National Coalition of Associations of 7-Eleven Franchisees filed another suit in California alleging additional coercive attempts at corporate control.
Still, 7-Eleven stores have long offered a positive vehicle for immigrants — especially South Asians — to ascend into the middle class. Franchise costs are relatively affordable, and in 2013, the National Minority Franchising Initiative reported that 57% of the chain’s stores were minority-run. The result — as my neighborhood store illustrates — can be a vivid demonstration of the American dream.
It seems incredible to have to remind ourselves, at this point in the history of the Republic, that immigration and immigrants — with and without papers — are the backbone of the American economy. Again and again, research shows immigration’s net positive economic effect. “Immigrants, we get the job done,” Lin-Manuel-Miranda exults in the musical “Hamilton,” whose hero emigrated from the Caribbean island of Nevis on his way to helping found the United States.
Just two days before the 7-Eleven raids, the Trump administration announced it would do away with Temporary Protected Status for 200,000 Salvadorans in the U.S. — “part of what appears an effort …,” argued a Baltimore Sun editorial, “to go nationality-by-nationality to show the door to Latino and Latina immigrants, legal or illegal.”
The day after the raids, the president made his blatantly racist comments denigrating Haiti, El Salvador and countries in Africa while torpedoing a fix for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.
That none of this is particularly surprising — the president, remember, kicked off his campaign by calling Mexicans criminals and rapists, then began his presidency with the Muslim “travel ban” — makes it no less troubling, especially in California, which is, as of Jan. 1, a sanctuary state. The California Values Act prevents police from asking about immigration status or cooperating with federal immigration authorities, with some exceptions. A related law allows employers to be prosecuted if, in state Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra’s words, they “voluntarily start giving up information about … or access to their employees” without a warrant.
When Gov. Jerry Brown signed the laws, Homan responded that “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.”
We have every reason, then, to see the recent raids as a signal of what’s to come — ICE agents swooping down on restaurants, car washes, convenience stores and construction sites.
Indeed, the San Francisco Chronicle reported last week that “U.S. immigration officials have begun preparing for a major sweep in San Francisco and other Northern California cities in which federal officers would look to arrest more than 1,500 undocumented people while sending a message that immigration policy will be enforced in the sanctuary state.”
Theater again, although not for those who are arrested. For them, this is all too real.
I never thought going to a convenience store would become a political act, but here we are. I’ll keep supporting my local 7-Eleven, and any other franchise that gets raided. It would be un-American — or un-Californian — to do otherwise.