According to an internal memorandum, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has plans to conduct a targeted enforcement operation at a national food service chain within the coming weeks. An ICE official spoke with The Daily Beast, on condition of anonymity, telling the news organization that ICE plans to conduct this operation to discourage American employers from exploiting undocumented workers by paying them low wages. Officials told the news organization that the operation will be targeting multiple locations across the United States, and that employers will likely be charged with federal offenses including harboring illegal aliens.
This move is the Trump administration’s latest attempt to deter illegal immigration through worksite enforcement actions, described by the administration as targeted operations to prosecute individuals who employ undocumented immigrants. If all goes to plan, the operation will be primarily focused on prosecuting owners of franchises who illegally employ undocumented immigrants. Sources with knowledge of the investigation have said that a preliminary investigation has already been conducted and that targets have already been chosen.
The food industry has and continues to be an industry that employs thousands of undocumented workers due to the unskilled nature of the work, and the fact that employers are able to cut costs by paying undocumented workers very low salaries. According to a 2008 Pew report, at least 10 percent of the hospitality industry is supported by the labor of undocumented immigrants. Last year, Eater reported that over 20% of all cooks working in restaurant kitchens could be undocumented. Noelle Stewart, communications manager for Define American, said that undocumented immigrants make up a crucial part of our economy in that, “they cultivate our produce; they cook our food,” she says, “the food industry wouldn’t be possible in the way it is without them.”
Due to high turnover rates in the food service industry and the struggle to keep costs down to increase profitability, it is unlikely that the food service industry’s hiring practices will change. On the other hand, large scale operations such as this one might make restaurant owners think twice about employing undocumented workers. In 2015, Farrukh Baig, the owner of fourteen 7-Eleven stores, pleaded guilty to concealing and harboring illegal aliens. An internal investigation revealed that Baig and his co-conspirators hired at least one hundred undocumented immigrants who worked in their stores. Baig engaged in identity theft to conceal the workers’ true identities. In a scheme that lasted over 13 years, Baig and his co-conspirators, stole the wages of the undocumented immigrants working for them, paid them below the minimum wage, and agreed to house them in homes that were in close proximity to the 7-Eleven stores where they worked, in exchange for a deduction of rent from their paychecks. According to the federal government, in the course of two years, Baig and his co-conspirators had stolen $1.25 million from the undocumented workers they had hired.
ICE has taken the position that they will prosecute employers hiring undocumented immigrants, and detain and deport the undocumented immigrants working for them. In high profile cases such as the Baig case, undocumented workers who cooperate with federal prosecutors are eligible for U visas, which allow witnesses and/or victims of crimes to remain in the United States lawfully provided they assist law enforcement in their investigations or prosecutions of these crimes. One thing remains clear: worksite raids will be commonplace during the Trump administration.