Last week, Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents swooped down on about 100 7-Elevens across the country. The coordinated pre-dawn raids arrested 21 workers and launched audits of employers who, if found to knowingly employ undocumented workers, face fines and jail time. The message was clear: Undocumented people—even those who escape workplace arrests—will soon find it impossible to seek employment at all.
Members of the Trump administration have billed these recent immigration sweeps at 7-Elevens across the country as the dawn of a new workplace enforcement strategy. The White House is hoping that, by targeting both undocumented workers and their employers, it can further dissuade new arrivals from coming to the United States without papers. But some analysts warn that the raids aren't going to convince undocumented Americans to pack up and leave; they'll just find other, less formal means of survival.
Immigrant rights advocates said in a press statement Tuesday that they had reason to anticipate sweeps at more 7-Elevens. (Pacific Standard was not immediately able to confirm the statement.) In response, community organizers across the country have been scrambling to inform both 7-Eleven franchisees and employees of their rights.
Few details were available to the public regarding last week's raids beyond the total number of arrests made. "Unfortunately, very few details about the raids are publicly available, including which specific 7-Elevens and who was detained," says Karin Wang, the vice president of programs and communications at Asian Americans Advancing Justice–Los Angeles, a legal aid group. "From what has been reported, we are deeply concerned that this administration is escalating its deportation machine, going after what are essentially small businesses that not only employ immigrants but are often run by immigrants as well."
Immigration analysts expressed concern that enforcement was becoming more hostile than ever before.
"This is a highly unusual and much more aggressive tactic we have not seen even under George W. Bush," says Raúl Hinojosa-Ojeda, a Chicana/o studies professor at the University of California–Los Angeles whose research focuses on undocumented American laborers. "It is a clear psychological terror tactic intended to make people fearful of public spaces as well as workplaces."
Hinojosa also notes that beyond pandering to President Donald Trump's anti-immigrant base, many of the worker arrests land them in immigrant detention centers operated by private enterprises that reportedly back Trump.
As with much of the Trump administration's policy, last week's approach to workplace raids marks a significant departure from previous administrations, USA Today and others explain; under former President Barack Obama, ICE agents focused on employers, and his predecessor George W. Bush was more lenient toward employers.
While the tactics may have changed, the raids follow a familiar pattern from the Trump administration, says Jorge-Mario Cabrera, a spokesman for the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights. "These type of enforcement activities terrorize communities, create chaos, and hurt local economies," he says, adding that workers have the right to an attorney and "ICE cannot barge into a facility without a search warrant or court order."
The newer, more comprehensive workplace raids are intended to send a message abroad, to prospective undocumented émigrés, officials say. "Businesses that hire illegal workers are a pull factor for illegal immigration and we are working hard to remove this magnet," ICE Deputy Director Thomas Homan said in a press statement on the operation.
Much as the heavily publicized raids were meant to discourage undocumented arrivals, they also appeared to be geared toward the president's base, many of whom are concerned that undocumented workers are taking jobs that, they claim, would otherwise be occupied by documented U.S. citizens. (A notion that is questionable at best.)
The missing factor in the administration's calculus on undocumented immigration, analysts say, is the undocumented people currently living in America, who already struggle to support their families with low-wage labor, often performed in suboptimal workplace conditions. A constant flow of patrons at 7-Eleven franchises allowed for more public oversight than work in backroom sweatshops.
The raids will have the effect of "clearly pushing people and families further underground, rather than leaving," Hinojosa predicts.
Reports have emerged of undocumented Americans forgoing medical care and opting not to alert the authorities when they fall victim to crimes—an issue that will only be compounded by these raids, according to University of Southern California sociology professor Jody Agius Vallejo.
"These kinds of enforcement efforts—and the fear that they instill—can lead people to withdraw from public life and they cause profound mental-health issues and economic distress for American-born children," she says. "They also provide more leeway for employers to control and exploit workers."
Many of these people are portrayed by the Trump administration as an alien community, far removed from mainstream America. That's a fallacy, Vallejo says. "About two-thirds of undocumented immigrants are long-settled and have lived in the U.S. for at least a decade. They have roots in the U.S.— they have families and they are integrated into our workplaces, our schools, civil society, and our communities."
Exactly what kind of work will become available to undocumented Americans as they are pushed out of those communities and further from the public view remains to be seen. For lack of a legal means of supporting their families, undocumented workers may find it necessary to enter informal sectors they would have never otherwise considered. That would only vindicate Trump's worldview, as sold to his base in the weekly publication of crimes committed by undocumented people, that American society's ills owe themselves to a single class of new immigrants.