There’s a long history in this country of immigrants and children of immigrants pulling the rope up behind them when the next wave of immigrants comes into America, and what happened at three 7-Elevens on the East End today is the latest chapter in that sad story.
Nine 7-Eleven franchise owners, including the owners of the Sag Harbor, Cutchogue and Greenport stores, were indicted in U.S. District Court on Monday on charges they exploited illegal immigrants, stole their wages, and forced them to live and pay rent in houses that the franchise owners owned. They also allegedly stole a bunch of IDs from American citizens in order to rig 7-Eleven’s corporate payroll system to give themselves kickbacks on their employees’ pay. 7-Eleven’s corporate headquarters says it is cooperating with the investigation.
Six of the nine owners indicted are naturalized U.S. citizens, while two are Pakistani citizens and one is a citizen of the Philippines. Together, they allegedly took advantage of more than 50 illegal immigrants at 14 7-Eleven stores in New York and Virginia, says the U.S. Justice Department.
Justice Department Spokesman Robert Nardoza said in an interview Monday that the workers, who had first complained to the Suffolk County Police about their working conditions two years ago, are not being charged and they are not in custody, and law enforcement officials were quick to point out that the illegal immigrants were the victims, not the perpetrators, of the crimes laid out in the indictment.
“As alleged in the indictment, these nine individuals took full advantage of illegal immigrants through a multi-state scheme that generated millions in profits for themselves while ignoring the common decency in the employer/employee relationship,” said New York State Police Superintendent Joseph D’Amico in a press release issued by the Justice Department. “The defendants allegedly provided the illegal immigrants with false documentation, stole significant portions of their wages and set them up in living arrangements that left the individuals completely beholden to them. I commend the unwavering dedication of the State Police Investigators who worked with our partners from federal, state and local law enforcement to make these defendants accountable for their actions.”
“As charged in the indictments, the defendants have been exploiting vulnerable individuals who, due to their immigration status, may have been afraid to come forward and report possible wrongdoing by their employers,” added Suffolk County Police Commissioner Edward Webber.
Mr. Webber’s cautious words seem to signal a sea change at the Suffolk County Police Department, which took heat for its treatment of Hispanic immigrants after the 2008 murder of Ecuadorian immigrant Marcelo Lucero in Patchogue by a group of young men who were known in the community to be attacking Hispanic immigrants for sport. In 2011, the Justice Department handed the county a 28-page report detailing what it can do better to keep immigrants safe from harm in Suffolk.
Too few details of this case have been released to the public at this time to tell whether the workers in the East End’s 7-Elevens were technically victims of labor trafficking, but if they were, they are eligible for help, as if they were refugees, from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, regardless of their citizenship status.
In the meantime, the rest of us will have to go to a 7-Eleven operated by a different franchisee for our Big Gulps. We’re big kids. We can handle it.