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Restricted in jails, ICE pursues unauthorized immigrants in workplaces like 7-Eleven

Scarlett De Leon with the Koreatown Immigrant Workers Association was one of about 50 immigrant advocates who gathered Tuesday at a 7-Eleven in Koreatown to protest recent enforcement sweeps at the franchise stores nationwide.
Scarlett De Leon with the Koreatown Immigrant Workers Association was one of about 50 immigrant advocates who gathered Tuesday at a 7-Eleven in Koreatown to protest recent enforcement sweeps at the franchise stores nationwide.
Leslie Berestein Rojas/KPCC

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About 50 immigrant advocates gathered outside a 7-Eleven store in Koreatown Tuesday to protest recent immigration enforcement sweeps at the convenience stores nationwide, and to meet immigration agents who they thought would show up.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials didn't appear. But a spokesperson said the agency did visit five 7-Elevens in Los Angeles County last week, which appeared to some advocates that ICE is making good on its comments to push enforcement into workplaces and communities following passage of sanctuary policies limiting cooperation by local law enforcement agencies.

Officials served inspection notices at 98 7-Eleven convenience store franchises in 18 states last week and arrested 21 people suspected of living in the country illegally. The locations included four stores in Los Angeles and one in Culver City, according to officials, but they said no local arrests were made.

According to ICE, last week's operation was a follow-up to a 2013 investigation into several 7-Eleven franchises. That investigation led to the arrests of nine franchise owners and managers "for conspiring to commit wire fraud, stealing identities and concealing and harboring illegal aliens employed at their stores," according to the agency." Most pleaded guilty and were ordered to pay restitution for back wages stolen from employees, the agency said.

But some who gathered outside the Koreatown 7-Eleven on Beverly Boulevard Tuesday said they think the recent raids by ICE agents aren’t just intended to punish employers.

"We see this as a direct attack to our community," said Scarlett De Leon, an organizer with the Koreatown Immigrant Workers Association. "It has more to do than with employers. They [ICE agents] understand that this is an immigrant community, and that by coming here they are trying to intimidate the community as a whole.”

A flyer that immigrant advocates handed out at a 7-Eleven in Koreatown on Tuesday, following immigration enforcement sweeps at almost 100 stores nationwide last week.
A flyer that immigrant advocates handed out at a 7-Eleven in Koreatown on Tuesday, following immigration enforcement sweeps at almost 100 stores nationwide last week.
Leslie Berestein Rojas/KPCC

The protesters, who are with the Los Angeles Raids Rapid Response Network, a group of community organizers, volunteer attorneys and other advocates, said they activated after they heard federal immigration agents might visit the store.

They said the store owner told group members that the agency contacted her, and agents were not coming after all. But they still used the day as an opportunity to decry the recent enforcement operation focused on the franchises.

“These kinds of policies, if they are going to engage in now targeting employers, it is not helping, and it is not making our country safer," said Guillermo Torres, an organizer with Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice, a faith-based advocacy group based near downtown Los Angeles.

Last fall, immigration officials said they would step up arrests in local neighborhoods and at worksites in response to growing limitations on cooperation with ICE following pro-immigrant sanctuary policies implemented by local governments.

In October, after Gov. Jerry Brown signed S.B. 54, a measure that limits cooperation between local police and federal immigration agents, ICE Acting Director Thomas Homan issued a statement saying: "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, instead of focusing on arrests at jails and prisons where transfers are safer for ICE officers and the community."

A worker at the 7-Eleven in Koreatown Tuesday did not want to comment at length, but did say that their employee paperwork was in order.