NEW YORK — Federal authorities seized 14 7-Eleven stores on Long Island and in Virginia on Monday, charging nine owners and managers with harboring and hiring dozens of illegal immigrants and paying them using sham Social Security numbers, officials said.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents and federal prosecutors in Brooklyn were also investigating 40 7-Eleven franchises in New York City and elsewhere, in one of the largest criminal immigrant employment investigations ever conducted by the Justice and Homeland Security departments, officials said.
The franchises split their profits with the 7-Eleven parent corporation, which handles the store payrolls, and prosecutors were seeking $30 million in forfeiture from the stores and the corporate parent. In addition to seizing 10 7-Eleven stores in New York and four in Virginia, the authorities seized five houses in New York.
The raids come at a time when Washington is embroiled in an intense debate over an overhaul of the nation’s immigration system, including stronger enforcement at the borders and in workplaces.
The charges and two indictments were announced at a news conference Monday by Loretta E. Lynch, the US attorney in Brooklyn, and James T. Hayes, who is in charge of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement office of investigations in New York City, along with officials from the New York State Police and the Suffolk County Police Department.
Through the scheme, officials said, the defendants hired more than 50 people who were in the country illegally, provided them with more than 20 identities stolen from US citizens, including children and dead people, put them up at houses owned by the defendants, and stole substantial portions of their wages.
“From their 7-Eleven stores the defendants dispensed wire fraud and identity theft, along with Slurpees and hot dogs,” Lynch said. “In bedroom communities across Long Island and Virginia, the defendants not only systematically employed illegal immigrants but concealed their crimes by raiding the cradle and grave to steal the identities of children and even the dead.”
Lynch said the defendants “ruthlessly exploited their immigrant employees,” forcing them to live in unregulated boardinghouses and “creating a modern-day plantation system.”
The charges against the owners and managers — eight men and a woman — included wire fraud conspiracy and aggravated identity theft.
Many of those charged were of Pakistani descent and it was believed that most, if not all, of the workers in the country illegally were also from Pakistan, officials said.
In one instance, an employee of one franchise was paid using the Social Security number of a former 7-Eleven employee, a person who had not worked for the store for 10 years and who had been the target of collection efforts by the Internal Revenue Service for much of that time because of the reported payments to the worker who was in the country illegally, officials said.
The conduct charged, officials said, had been going on since 2000, during which the defendants generated more than $182 million in revenue. Twenty-five of the 40 additional 7-Eleven franchises under scrutiny were to be inspected Monday as part of the ongoing investigation.
Officials said the parent company lacked enough internal controls to prevent the same Social Security numbers from being used to pay more than one store employee, which happened in more than one instance.