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Federal immigration agents targeted 7-Eleven franchises in Petaluma, Santa Rosa and Sebastopol Wednesday as part of a national series of enforcement actions at the convenience store chain that authorities said was aimed at validating the immigration status of its employees and managers.

Video from 7-Eleven in Santa Rosa (Courtesy KPIX 5):

No arrests were made in Sonoma County and other Northern California locations, but 21 people were arrested during U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement visits to 98 7-Elevens in 17 states, according to an ICE spokesman. It was the largest immigration action against an employer under Donald Trump’s year-old presidency.

At least one 7-Eleven in Napa was also targeted by federal immigration agents, said James Schwab, a spokesman for ICE’s San Francisco office. Other Bay Area locations for the operations included Santa Clara and Suisun City, he said.

The main purpose of the sweeps was to notify franchises that ICE would be auditing the immigration status of their employees and managers, Schwab said. Arrests were made in cases where it was clear that employees lacked legal status to work.

Officials with the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office and the Petaluma, Santa Rosa and Sebastopol police departments said they were not notified by ICE that operations were planned in their jurisdictions.

“They can operate anywhere and they don’t need to tell us,” said Santa Rosa Police Capt. Rainer Navarro. “But we wouldn’t have participated in this.”

Employees at 7-Elevens on Guerneville Road in Santa Rosa and on Pleasant Hill Avenue North in Sebastopol said they were visited by ICE agents around 5 a.m. The employees declined to be interviewed Wednesday evening.

Agents also showed up at the stores on Old Redwood Highway and Lakeville Highway in Petaluma. The Old Redwood Highway store manager, Baljit Singh, said agents arrived about 6 a.m. He declined to offer additional comment.

Agents appeared at the Lakeville Highway location about 10 hours later, around 4:30 p.m., according to employee Navneet Sangar.

“I feel bad. It’s scary,” said Sangar, who has worked at the store for about two years and started his shift 30 minutes after agents left. “I have paperwork, but I’m also scared. (People) say ‘Why do you come here? Why don’t you go back to your country?’ I’m working. I pay tax and everything.”

The enforcement sweeps in Sonoma County come after Acting ICE Director Thomas Homan publicly criticized the Sheriff’s Office twice in the past 3 months over its policy that limits jail officials’ cooperation with federal immigration agents.

Sheriff Rob Giordano and the Sheriff’s Office spokesman, Sgt. Spencer Crum, responded in the two cases with strongly worded statements that defended the jail policy on ICE detainer requests and assailed Homan’s allegations that the department was putting the public at risk.

Crum declined to speculate Wednesday on why Sonoma County — which accounted for half of the reported Bay Area locations involved in the operation— was targeted.

The last known ICE operation in the North Bay region took place in May when agents visited a farmworker camp in Lake County and arrested three people while looking for a man with a criminal record who did not live at the site.

Omar Medina, a local immigrant rights advocate and volunteer for the North Bay Rapid Response Network of Sonoma and Napa counties, manned a 24-hour emergency hotline Wednesday morning.

But no one had dialed the hotline in connection to the 7-Eleven raids all day, though more than 400 volunteer legal observers have been trained and are ready to deploy to sites where help was needed, Medina said.

“We’re here. We’re ready to respond to any raids,” he said.

7-Elevens in east Santa Rosa, on Yulupa, Mission Boulevard, Middle Rincon and Sonoma Highway were not part of the federal action Wednesday, according to store employees.

One 7-Eleven employee who asked that his name not be used for fear of retaliation on the part of the government, called news of the operation, “crazy,” and blamed President Trump’s hardline immigration policies.

“It’s just people working,” he said. “If people need papers to work, why not give the papers? Everybody wants to eat, everybody needs food, everybody wants clothes, everything.”

In Los Angeles, seven immigration agents filed into a 7-Eleven store before dawn Wednesday, waited for people to go through the checkout line and told arriving customers and a driver delivering beer to wait outside. A federal inspection was underway, they said.

Within 20 minutes, they verified that the cashier had a valid green card and served notice on the owner to produce hiring records in three days that deal with employees’ immigration status.

The employment audits and interviews with store workers could lead to criminal charges or fines. And they appeared to open a new front in Trump’s expansion of immigration enforcement, which has already brought a 40 percent increase in deportation arrests and pledges to spend billions of dollars on a border wall with Mexico.

A top ICE official said the audits were “the first of many” and “a harbinger of what’s to come” for employers.

“This is what we’re gearing up for this year and what you’re going to see more and more of is these large-scale compliance inspections, just for starters,” said Derek Benner, acting head of ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations, which oversees cases against employers.

“It’s not going to be limited to large companies or any particular industry — big, medium and small,” he said.

After the inspections, officials plan to look at whether the cases warrant administrative action or criminal investigations, Benner told the Associated Press.

7-Eleven Stores Inc., based in Irving, Texas, said in a statement that the owners of its franchises are responsible for hiring and verifying work eligibility. The chain with more than 8,600 convenience stores in the U.S. said it has previously ended franchise agreements for owners convicted of breaking employment laws.

Unlike other enforcement efforts that have marked Trump’s first year in office, Wednesday’s actions were aimed squarely at store owners and managers, though the 21 people arrested were workers suspected of being in the country illegally.

Illegal hiring is rarely prosecuted, partly because investigations are time-consuming and convictions are difficult to achieve because employers can claim they were duped by fraudulent documents or intermediaries. Administrative fines are discounted by some as a business cost.

Amy Peck, an Omaha, Nebraska, immigration attorney who represents businesses, said an employer crackdown will never work because the government has limited resources and there are many jobs that people who are in the country legally do not want.

“When these audits occur, the employees scatter in the wind and go down the street and work for somebody else,” Peck said. “You’re playing whack-a-mole.”

President George W. Bush’s administration pursued high-profile criminal investigations against employers in its final years with dramatic pre-dawn shows of force and large numbers of worker arrests. In 2008, agents arrived by helicopter at the Agriprocessors meatpacking plant in Postville, Iowa, and detained nearly 400 workers. Last month, Trump commuted the 27-year prison sentence of Sholom Rubashkin, former chief executive of what was the nation’s largest kosher meatpacking operation.

Barack Obama’s administration more than doubled employer audits to more than 3,100 a year in 2013, shunning Bush’s flashier approach. John Sandweg, an acting ICE director under Obama, said significant fines instilled fear in employers and avoided draining resources from other enforcement priorities, which include child exploitation, human trafficking and money laundering.

Wednesday’s audits arose from a 2013 investigation that resulted in charges against nine 7-Eleven franchisees and managers in New York and Virginia. Eight have pleaded guilty and were ordered to pay more than $2.6 million in back wages, and the ninth was arrested in November.

The managers used more than 25 stolen identities to employ at least 115 people in the country illegally, knowing they could pay below minimum wage, according to court documents.

Neither 7-Eleven nor was its parent company, Seven & I Holding Co. based in Tokyo, was charged in the case.

Julie Myers Wood, former head of ICE during the Bush administration, said the most recent inspections showed that immigration officials were focusing on a repeat violator. Part of the problem, Wood said, is the lack of “a consistent signal” between administrations that the U.S. government will prosecute employers who hire immigrants without legal status.

Some immigration hardliners have been pressing Trump to move against employers. Mark Krikorian, director of the Center for Immigration Studies, said the inspections offered “a good sign” that the administration was serious about going after employers. But, he said, the administration would need to go beyond audits.

“It’s important for Trump to show that they’re not just arresting the hapless schmo from Honduras but also but also the politically powerful American employer,” he said.

This article includes information from Press Democrat staff writers Nick Rahaim, Christi Warren, Mary Callahan, Martin Espinoza and Randi Rossmann and the Associated Press.

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