NEW YORK (AP) - Nine owners and managers of 7-Eleven stores across Long Island and in Virginia were charged on Monday in a scheme to exploit immigrants from Pakistan and the Philippines, in part by paying them using the stolen Social Security numbers of a child and three dead people.
Most of the defendants were arrested early Monday as federal authorities raided 14 franchise stores. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents were executing search warrants at about 30 other stores across the country suspected of similar infractions, authorities said at a news conference in Brooklyn.
Federal indictments naming eight men and one woman allege that since 2000 they employed more than 50 immigrants who didn't have permission to be in the U.S. They tried to conceal the immigrants' employment by stealing the identities of about two dozen people - including those of the child, the dead and a Coast Guard cadet - and submitting the information to the 7-Eleven payroll department.
When 7-Eleven's headquarters sent the wages for distribution, the employers stole "significant portions" of the workers' pay, authorities said. The defendants also forced the workers to live in houses they owned and pay them rent in cash, they added.
"The defendants not only systematically employed illegal immigrants, but concealed their crimes by raiding the cradle and the grave to steal the identities of children and even the dead," U.S. Attorney Loretta Lynch said in a statement. "Finally, these defendants ruthlessly exploited their immigrant employees, stealing their wages and requiring them to live in unregulated boarding houses, in effect creating a modern day plantation system."
The government seized the franchise rights of 10 stores in New York and four stores in Virginia. The stores will remain open under the parent company's operation.
Immigration officials detained 18 workers, including some who first notified authorities about the alleged fraud.
The defendants were to appear in court on Long Island and Norfolk, Va., later in the day to face wire fraud conspiracy, identity theft and alien harboring charges. They face up to 20 years in prison if convicted of conspiracy.
A 7-Eleven spokesman said the company was cooperating with the investigation, but declined further comment.
The case reflects stepped up enforcement against employers using bogus documentation for immigrant workers. In the past two years, federal authorities have brought similar charges against more than 500 business-owners and managers, said James Hayes, head of Immigration and Customs Enforcement's New York office.
"There's real teeth to these laws, and we're using them now more than ever before," Hayes said.
Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc. also came under investigation in recent years by for hiring workers who were in the country illegally. Last year, federal prosecutors charged a Minneapolis man who ran a company that provides labor to large poultry farms with transporting and harboring illegal immigrants.
Haeyoung Yoon, senior staff attorney for the National Employment Law Project, said that low-wage employers are more prone to not having the proper documentation for their workers. Once the fraud is exposed, the workers typically end up getting fired on the spot and sometimes deported, Yoon said.
Associated Press writers Tom Hays and Candice Choi contributed to this report.