ICE and other law enforcement organizations mounted a big, two-state raid earlier this week on a collection of 7-Eleven stores that had been employing – and cheating – dozens of illegal aliens; there was extensive reporting by the New York Times and the Associated Press.
This was a bonanza, financially, for the employers. The various 7-Eleven interests had made $182 million in profits from these stores, according to the AP.
Was it a whopping success for the good guys? Were the raids staged to support the administration's immigration policies? Did it reveal a long series of corporate, governmental, and community failings?
I don't know about the staging, but as I look at the whole situation I see a lot more failures than successes, though there were some of both.
Here's what happened, according to the press and to the 60-some pages in the federal indictments:
Two Pakistani families headed by U.S. citizens, presumably operating separately from each other but using parallel illegal tactics, owned and operated a total of 14 7-Eleven franchises in New York and Virginia. Since as early as 2000 they had been employing illegal aliens, mostly other Pakistanis, working them as much as 100 hours a week and cheating them out of about 75 percent of their wages.
Wage payments were made through the 7-Eleven central headquarters in Texas, with the local franchise owners subsequently seizing the payroll checks and paying the workers part of the value of the checks in cash, the stories said.
The family owning a dozen of the stores, in both states, was headed by Farrukh and Bushra (Mr. and Mrs.) Baig; the other two stores, both in New York, were owned by the brothers Azhar "Sonny" Zia and Ummar Uppal, a.k.a. "Amer Uppal".
Let's try to sort out the good, bad, and mixed news in this case.
The Good News. The four local owners, and a total of five sidekicks and relatives of the Baigs, were all arrested, jailed, and denied bail for their part in the conspiracies. They will stand trial later. All too often, employers of illegal aliens are released on bail.
Further, the government seized the 14 stores and threatens to appropriate these and other properties, including some apparently large mansions of the owners, in case of convictions.
Finally, ICE detained 18 of the illegal alien workers. So far, so good.
The Mixed News. While the 7-Eleven mother company got a well-deserved public relations black eye (they now say that they are cooperating with the authorities), they are not being prosecuted for their part in the scandal. Maybe it is too difficult to prove their participation, but they may be facing a well-deserved financial penalty. As the Times story reported: "Prosecutors are seeking $30 million in forfeitures from the stores and the corporate parent", Dallas-based 7-Eleven, Inc., the U.S. subsidiary of Seven & I Holdings.
The government has seized the stores from the franchise owners and turned their operations over to the mother company, the very company that has been sharing in the illicit profits; perhaps sharing passively and unwittingly, but sharing just the same. Why not turn the stores over to a judge-appointed trustee until the case can be sorted out?
Similarly, while the illegal alien workers are currently being detained, there is no assurance that they will be expelled or deported. (I would make an exception for the illegal who went to the New York State Police with a complaint; it would encourage other whistle-blowers.)
The Bad News. There is a lot of this.
First and foremost, the hiring of the illegal aliens and their exploitation had been going on for at least 13 years, it took place in at least a dozen locations, and it involved dozens of illegal aliens. Government agencies, particularly ICE, should have known about it and done something about it at least a decade ago.
Similarly, I have a sense that the people handling the prosecution had the choice of nipping the problem in the bud shortly after the investigation started, but instead opted to spend a long time working up the most comprehensive case possible, the one that was least likely to fall apart in court. Apparently the goal was air-tight court cases rather than immediately undoing an illegal and exploitive situation. I would like to see a discussion of this issue.
Part of the problem, of course, is the crazy way that the federal government spends money on immigration enforcement, doing it out lavishly at the border, but scarcely at all in the middle of the country, where the illegals live. Millions for drones on the southern border (that may or not be used) and no hundreds of thousands for more investigators in the interior.
But this is not just an immigration law enforcement problem that was ignored for a dozen years, it involved other government agencies as well. Where were the federal and state minimum wage people all those years?
The Times reported "packed" living conditions for the workers — who had to live in quarters owned by the conspirators — but no city or county housing inspectors noticed.
There are other sets of failures in this story: those of local activists and individuals.
At the community level, think of all those 7-Eleven customers who must have seen the same guy working at 7 a.m. when they bought the morning paper and at 9 p.m. when they picked up a pack of cigarettes, and saw those long hours day after day. Why did not one of them say to the person behind the counter — "you must be getting a hell of a lot of paid overtime" and start a conversation thereby.
Weren't there any poverty-fighting (or restrictionist) activists in any of the 14 neighborhoods who noticed something odd?
One more failure, dealing with extensive identity theft and the illicit use of other people's Social Security numbers by the alien workers: According to the Times, a former employee at one of the stores "had been the target of collection efforts by the IRS for much of that time because of the reported payments to [an] illegal immigrant [who had been illegally using his SSN]."
This happened over a period of 10 years.
Why did not that worker go to IRS and say, "let's find out where the phony me is supposed to be working and then go to that place and get the truth"? Maybe that's expecting too much of an ex-7-Eleven worker.
The biggest failure exposed by this story is that of Seven & I Holdings, a monumental firm that must have access to the most sophisticated crime-fighting tools. Why did the firm run such a sloppy payroll operation that it never noticed what was going on in any of these 14 stores? Why did it not notice that one SSN (later identified as stolen) was being used by one worker in New York and another worker in Virginia, as the Times reported. Maybe it did not care.
I am glad ICE raided these places, and I look forward to convictions of the owners, but it is even more important to get corporate America to start acting like a good citizen, a message that Seven & I badly needs to hear.
Users of PACER, the U.S. Courts electronic documents system, can see these indictments, both in the Eastern District of New York, at 2:13-cr-00351-SJF and 2:13-cr-00352-SJF.
A note on terminology: The federal indictments call the workers "illegal aliens", the Times used "illegal immigrants", and the AP used "immigrants".