U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents serve an employment audit notice at a 7-Eleven convenience store. Chris Carlson/AP

Immigration officials said purpose of their raids on 7-Elevens was to target employers. The evidence suggests otherwise.

Ninety-eight 7-Eleven stores. 17 states and Washington, D.C. 21 arrests. On January 10, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents conducted what’s being called the biggest immigration crackdown on a single company since Donald Trump became president. The agency has said that these types of raids are likely to repeat in the future—and are likely to target businesses of all types and sizes.

In an email statement, ICE Deputy Director Thomas D. Homan said the raids will “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.”

But what message did the raids actually send to the communities that Trump targeted? The main purpose of raids like these appears to be to instill fear in undocumented workers by communicating that they are in danger of being deported if they show up to their jobs. These workplace raids harken back to George W. Bush-era, and fit into a broader strategy that the Trump administration has embraced, which seeks to make living conditions so inhospitable that undocumented immigrants might choose to leave or “self-deport.”

The outcome of the raids also shows that despite rhetoric about targeting employers, ICE may not really go after the big fish. Of the 21 arrests made last week, none were franchise owners or managers. And while it seems clear that they meant to target undocumented immigrants, the number of arrests, at 21, pales in comparison to the number of stores raided: 98 in 17 states.

“ICE’s decision to send armed agents into franchises of the iconic American company 7-Eleven is a return to Bush-era immigration law enforcement tactics that spread fear throughout migrant communities, but often result in few apprehensions,” said César Cuauhtémoc García Hernández, a law professor at the University of Denver’s Sturm College of Law. “Indeed, [last] week’s operations shows how workplace raids are far more important symbolically than as actual tools to identify people who are violating immigration law.”

During these workplace inspections, also called I-9 audits, ICE agents enter worksites and conduct interviews with employees and managers to determine compliance with immigration laws. If they find violations, they can fine employers. In some cases, criminal charges are filed by the Department of Justice. Under this administration, the employees found to be undocumented through their investigation are subject to arrest and removal.

“These raids are interesting in that they are targeted at franchises,” said Mai Nguyen, an associate professor of Housing and Community Development at the University of Northern Carolina. “The corporation doesn’t need to change anything, because they didn’t target the corporation—they targeted individual owners of 7-Elevens.” This approach seems to align with the administration’s willingness to go easy on corporations. Just last December, President Trump commuted the 27-year prison sentence of Sholom Rubashkin, whose Iowa meatpacking plant—a part of a large corporation called Agriprocessors Inc.—was the target of a huge immigration raid in 2008.

It’s not clear if Trump-era workplace raids will ultimately be effective in deterring employers from hiring undocumented immigrants. But constricting the ability of undocumented immigrants to work fits into a long-held strategy, called “attrition through enforcement,” among immigration hardliners, which seeks to drive immigrants out of the country voluntarily. It’s an approach that been popular in states like Arizona and Alabama, and one that this administration, in particular, has embraced.

Some effects of the fear-mongering are already visible. Landlords are threatening immigrant tenants with deportation. And last year, employees of Motel 6, which is also a franchise, were caught disclosing private information about their guests to ICE officials in Arizona and Washington state, including names, birthdates, driver’s license numbers, license plate numbers and room numbers. These reports led to at least 26 arrests between the two states. Washington State is now suing the company.

Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, predicts that ICE will conduct more raids on hotels and motels, fast food and convenience store chains, and restaurants.

“I’m most concerned about the impact on workers and people who are looking for jobs and looking for a way to feed their families,” said Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the National Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

Immigration advocates also argue that workplace enforcement takes a toll on local economies, without really addressing root causes of illegal immigration.  Like other broad sweeps planned in so-called sanctuary cities, critics say more forceful workplace enforcement will likely continue to add undue stress on immigrant communities.

“What ends up happening with these raids or with punitive practices is that it really does scare the entire community and makes them go underground...Businesses lose customers, and that affects their bottom line,” Nguyen said.

She worries that employers and coworkers may become more suspicious of current employees, and prospective ones. “The employer becomes much more careful about how they hire and whether or not they will hire undocumented immigrants,” she said. “And even beyond that, they are much more scrutinizing even to documented immigrants.”

ICE maintains that despite the increased focus on workplace raids, these operations aren’t a significant departure from those undertaken under previous administrations. The recent raids sought to follow up on inspections at 7-Eleven franchises conducted in 2013, ICE told CityLab. The previous series of 7-Eleven raids resulted in the arrest of nine franchise owners and managers, who faced charges of wire fraud, identity theft, and “concealing and harboring illegal aliens,” the agency said. All but one of the nine, who absconded until November 2017, pleaded guilty.

Overall in 2017, ICE conducted 1,360 workplace audits, resulting in 139 criminal arrests and 172 administrative arrests. (Overall, ICE conducted 143,470 administrative arrests that year.) According to the agency, businesses were ordered to pay $97.6 million in judicial forfeiture and criminal fines, in addition to civil penalties that year.

Those numbers pale in comparison to former President Barack Obama’s first term, when worksite enforcement yielded arrests in the low thousands. Even in 2014, when that administration decided to prioritize the removal of undocumented immigrants with serious criminal records, the number of arrests was higher than in 2017, when there were 541 administrative arrests and 362 criminal arrests.

In 2008, under President Bush, total arrests from workplace enforcement came to 6,297 people, over 1,000 of which were criminal. The difference was that the Bush administration focused on rounding up unauthorized immigrants, rather than penalizing employers, like the Obama administration did. Under Trump, there appears to be a return to the Bush-era approach.

“Alone, workplace raids represent a shift in tactics rather than a different emphasis on targeting businesses,” said García Hernández. “The key question is how often ICE engages in workplace raids moving forward.”

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