Just as the Indian-American community was breathing a sigh of relief over resolution of the H-1B visa extensions issue, and progress on the DACA front for youth who came as children to this country, it was hit by a major challenge when Immigration authorities launched surprise raids on some of their small businesses, a harbinger of more to come.
On Jan. 10, ICE agents went at 6 a.m. to 98 franchises of 7-Eleven around the country and arrested 21 people who were allegedly without immigration authorization. A significant proportion of franchises of this and other wellknown brands are owned by people of Indian origin. Several of those detained were of Indian descent, according to Srujal Parikh, president of the Federation of Indian Associations (FIA) for the tri-state area of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.
The National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum and South Asian Americans Leading Together, released a joint statement condemning the ICE raids, adding, “It’s clear from the numbers that any large scale immigration raids, detentions and deportations deeply impact the South Asian community in the U.S. With 450,000 undocumented Indians …”
The 17 states where the 7-Elevens that were raided, are located included California, Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Maryland, Michigan, Missouri, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas and Washington. According to ICE this was the largest such operation targeting a specific employer since President Trump took office, The Washington Post reported, adding that ICE agents went into the stores “to deliver audit notifications and conduct interviews.”
“Most of the ICE raids were in New Jersey, and as far as my information goes, most of them are Indians, and they will be deported,” Parikh told News India Times. ICE did not respond by press time to queries from News India Times about the nationalities of those arrested.
The ICE raids came just as the community relaxed from a threat to revoke H-1B visa holders’ right to extend their visas beyond 6 years while waiting for Green Card processing. According to some estimates, if revoked it would have affected 500,000 Indians most of them working in tech fields. Some progress was reported in the Obama administration’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals issue, when President Donald Trump in a meeting with members of Congress signaled support for letting them stay if a border wall could be negotiated. Asian Pacific organizations (National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum and South Asian Americans Leading Together,) estimate there are 23,000 Indians and Pakistani DREAMers as they are popularly called, in the U.S.
The ICE warning that the action was just the first example of what will happen in the future, has shaken the Indian-American small business community to its core. And they have reason to be worried. The corporate headquarters of 7-Eleven informed this correspondent it terminates relationships with any franchises convicted of breaking federal employment laws.
“The 7-Eleven raids have really scared the small business community of Indian-Americans,” FIA’s Parikh said. “It seems like profiling to us. Some 90 percent of 7- Elevens, especially in New Jersey, are owned by Indians.”
ICE did not respond to News India Times request for its reaction to the profiling accusation.
Parikh said public officials and elected leaders should take up the issue. “We need representatives in government. This is a wakeup call for the Indian community,” said Parikh, adding that the FIA was going to discuss the matter with all its 35-40 member organizations. “It is a national issue. 7-Elevens and Dunkin Donuts are easy targets for Indian-Americans,” he said. Calls by News India Times to contact Indian-origin owners of several franchises in New Jersey and Maryland, were not returned.
“Like many, I’m disturbed by these raids and hope they are not the beginning of a policy of targeting immigrantowned small businesses,” Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, D-Illinois, told News India Times,
New Jersey State Assemblyman Raj Mukherji, told News India Times while he did not know all the facts about the raids, “this situation highlights the need for comprehensive immigration reform and a pathway to lawful residency or citizenship for undocumented immigrants.” According to him, these otherwise law abiding members of the community who paid taxes and raised families were at risk of deportation.
“Today’s actions 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,” Thomas D. Homan, the acting head of ICE, said in a statement. “Businesses that hire illegal workers are a pull factor for illegal immigration and we are working hard to remove this magnet. ICE will continue its efforts to protect jobs for American workers by eliminating unfair competitive advantages for companies that exploit illegal immigration,” Homan added.
Indian and Indian-American owned small businesses are a mainstay of this community. Small businesses are probably the most important segment of the economy and the raids are likely to ripple through it, regardless of the ethnicities running them.
U.S. Census data from 2014, shows that out of the 5.83 million employer firms in the country, those with fewer than 500 workers account for 99.7 percent, and those employing less than 20 workers, make up 89.4 percent.
Commenting on the overall impact of the ICE action, columnist and attorney Andy Semotiuk, wrote in Forbes magazine Jan. 11, “The 7-Eleven raids sent an electric shock through the U.S. economy all the way up to the Canadian border.”
Small businesses get a bad rap despite their contributions and there is an underlying view based on anecdotal evidence, that small businesses in all communities pay below minimum wage to undocumented labor, or even those on students visas not allowed to work.
The small business community is worried that other franchises where Indian and Indian-American ownership is dominant, such as Dunkin Donuts, motels, convenience stores, etc., may also be targeted.
Meanwhile, Irving, Texas-based 7-Eleven Inc., responding to a query from News India Times laid out its mandate for franchisees.
“We are aware of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) actions taken at certain franchise locations. 7-Eleven Franchisees are independent business owners and are solely responsible for their employees including deciding who to hire and verifying their eligibility to work in the United States. This means that all store associates in a franchised store are employees of the Franchisee and not 7- Eleven, Inc.,” the company said. However, “As part of the 7-Eleven franchise agreement, 7-Eleven requires all franchise business owners to comply with all federal, state and local employment laws. This obligation requires 7-Eleven franchisees to verify work eligibility in the US for all of their prospective employees prior to hiring. 7-Eleven takes compliance with immigration laws seriously and has terminated the franchise agreements of franchisees convicted of violating these laws,” the company said.
An immigration attorney and former federal official, Prakash Khatri, defended the ICE actions asserting that the raids would benefit those waiting for legal immigration. He said the bottom line of employing illegal aliens was that it deprived legitimate visa applicants of their chance to live in this country.
“I think we have lost the sense of rule of law,” he said. “Employers (who hire illegal workers) need to be punished. While many Indians are waiting to go through the immigration process, others (who are illegal) are getting jobs,” said Khatri, the first ever Ombudsman of the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) who served from 2003 to 2008.
“Indians and Indian-Americans should instead be saying, ‘Do more of these raids so that those who are waiting for legitimate ways to be here are not hurt,'” Khatri said. On possible profiling, Khatri said one would have to see how future raids take place and where, before making such claims. While 7-Elevens do employ many Indians and South Asians, Khatri said, “What we need to be cognizant of is not painting these raids as bad, but ensure they don’t target a particular group.”
The Employment Verification Process
Under federal law, employers are required to verify the identity and employment eligibility of all individuals they hire, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) said in a Jan. 10 notification. “Ensuring each of its employees is legally authorized to work in the United States is one of many responsibilities facing every American business, from small start-up operations to our country’s largest and most prosperous corporations.” It requires filling up the Employment Eligibility Verification Form I-9, available on the site.
But one Indian-American community leader said “Lot of times our small business community does not do background checks. They take the Social Security Card, and hire them.” Some of them say that it costs too much or takes time to get the verification done. But immigration attorney and former UCIS official Prakash Khatri put paid to that argument. “The employment verification process that USCIS has is a free service. So employers need have no worry and just go through the process,” he said.
ICE said on its website that the Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) division of ICE, has developed a “comprehensive” worksite enforcement strategy that includes ensuring compliance with the laws through inspections of I-9 forms that employers must maintain to show they have verified that the employee is legally allowed to work enforcement, through the arrest of employers, knowingly employing undocumented workers, and the arrest of unauthorized workers for violation of laws associated with working without authorization, and instilling a culture of compliance and accountability.
UCIS said, “Officials generally choose where they will conduct a Form I-9 inspection. For example, officials may ask that an employer bring Form I-9 to a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement field office. Sometimes, employers may arrange for an inspection at the location where the forms are stored.”
To ensure their legal standing, ICE advises employers to complete a self-assessment questionnaire, enroll in the DHS E-Verify program, establish a written hiring and employment eligibility verification policy and submit to a company-wide form I-9 inspection.
An ICE spokesperson told The Washington Post more resources were being allocated to make sure businesses comply with federal employment regulations. And the 7-Eleven raids are, “a demonstration of our commitment to enforcing the law.” A Washington Post-ABC survey showed an overwhelming majority of Americans want employers to verify the immigration status of hires; and a large majority of Democrats (65 percent) and overwhelming proportion of Republicans (93 percent) back these measures.
ICE told the Post it had conducted 1,360 employee audits last year and made 300 arrests on criminal and administrative violations. Businesses had to pay nearly $100 million ($97.6 m) in forfeitures determined by the courts, and another $7.8 million in civil fines.