Lost in the Thanksgiving shuffle last week was a potentially important story that federal investigators are preparing a case against a fast-food restaurant chain accused of hiring illegal immigrants and paying them less than the minimum wage.
The Daily Beast, which broke the story and cited an internal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) document, did not name the company. If it is true, it would represent the first major immigration workplace enforcement action since President Donald Trump took office.
“If ICE really does this operation, it will be a sign that things are changing,” said Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies at the Washington-based Center for Immigration Studies. “This would be a very important move to restore workplace enforcement.”
Vaughan and other immigration hawks long have complained that enforcement at job sites has been a glaring deficiency in Trump’s immigration efforts, which otherwise have shown marked progress over his predecessor’s.
“It almost begs the question, why they did they wait almost seven months to begin doing it?” said Chris Chmielenski, director of content and activism at NumbersUSA.
Acting ICE Director Thomas Homan, whom Trump has tapped to lead the agency permanently, acknowledged last month at a Heritage Foundation event that there has been little workplace enforcement. But he pledged to correct that.
The Daily Beast report quoted an unnamed ICE official as saying that the operation would target restaurants across the country and likely would result in charges of “harboring illegal aliens.” The official added that the workers were “basically being used as slave labor.”
The fast-food industry is notorious for both low wages and illegal immigrants in the workforce — facts that advocates of stronger immigration enforcement argue are not unrelated. Food preparation workers and food servers earn an average of $9.76 per hour, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The Migration Policy Institute estimates that about 9 percent of food service workers in the United States are undocumented. A 2009 Pew Hispanic Center report pegged the number at 12 percent.
An enforcement targeting fast food also would be significant because it would hit the industry of Trump’s original choice for labor secretary, Andrew Puzder, who withdrew his nomination in February amid questions over his business record and personal issues.
Puzder, the CEO of CKE Restaurants, which owns Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr., told a conference in August 2016 that before the firm started using the voluntary E-Verify system, 40 percent of the workforce would not show up when managers announced that ICE was coming.
Before CKE Restaurants started using the voluntary E-Verify system, 40 percent of the workforce would not show up when managers announced that ICE was coming.
ICE in 2014 audited about 180 Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr. restaurants in the Southwest and Midwest, finding documentation problems with about one out of every three workers.
Workplace enforcement has seen an ebb and flow over the years.
During Barack Obama’s administration, ICE uncovered hundreds of illegal immigrants working at Chipotle’s Mexican Grill locations in Minneapolis and the Washington, D.C., area.
“We firmly believe if you turn off the jobs magnet, you’ll dramatically reduce the flow of illegal immigrants,” Chmielenski said.
The publicity from going after a well-known fast food company could send a strong message to other employers, Chmielenski said.
“I do think you need some high-profile cases,” he said.
Vaughan said it takes time to investigate illegal hiring practices. What’s more, she added, it is difficult in many cases to prove the companies knowingly hired illegal immigrants.
“On the other hand,” she said, “this could be a wake-up call for them that they need to be more careful.”
Vaughan said she hopes companies respond to the federal government’s more aggressive posture by investigating their own workforces and signing up for E-Verify if they do not already use the system.
“The smartest thing for companies to do is not to wait for ICE to find illegal workers,” she said.