By Brandon B. QuinnIn the wake of a raid by federal agents on the Sag Harbor 7-Eleven, rumors have swirled and confusion has spread among village residents as to the whereabouts and fate of the employees trapped in what has been described by authorities as a “modern-day plantation system.”
On June 17, Farrukh Baig and his wife, Bushra Baig, of Head of Harbor, owners of 13 7-Eleven stores on Long Island and in Virginia, as well as five of their associates who operated the stores, were arrested by authorities. According to the indictment, they are charged with conspiring to commit wire fraud, stealing large portions of employee wages, stealing identities, and concealing and harboring illegal immigrants in houses they owned. Workers were forced to live in homes owned by the defendants, U.S. Attorney Loretta Lynch said.
Within a day of the raid, the store was taken over by the 7-Eleven Corporation, based in Dallas, Texas, and all the employees were terminated. New temporary employees were “dispatched by corporate to help the store survive through this hard time,” said a worker behind the counter who declined to give her name.
A new “help wanted” sign and an advertisement promising a competitive salary, vacation pay and an “employee assistance program” was in the window this week.
Many customers complained that when the store reopened on June 18, the lines were out the door because the corporate workers weren’t used to the daily sales routine.
“They’re in there sweating bullets trying to do a job they aren’t used to, trying to work cash registers with customers waiting on them when they’re used to sitting in a cushy office,” said resident John Stefanik.
Despite the initial shock and the subsequent dissatisfaction with service, one thing has remained steadfast—support from the community for the former employees.
“One of them, Jenny, was always so pleasant and smiling. I’m just wondering what happened to her,” said a customer who identified himself as Rob Smith. “We knew them all. Another guy named Angel, he worked here for a couple of years, he’s a really cool guy. It always seemed like the same crew working there, but judging by their demeanor, it didn’t seem like they were being treated poorly. They were always friendly. Nice people with nice families.”
Eighteen of the employees working at the Baig-owned stores were taken into custody by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, although officials refused to confirm whether or not any of those 18 were employed in Sag Harbor. No counts of identity theft have been charged in relation to the Sag Harbor store, although that doesn’t necessarily mean there were no illegal aliens working there.
In fact, ICE is alleging that all of the franchises, including the one in Sag Harbor, have “employed illegal workers at one time or another,” according to ICE public affairs officer Khaalid Walls. “Indeed, we have only charged the defendants for a fraction of their total identity thefts,” Ms. Lynch wrote in court documents.
Scott Matter, a spokesman for 7-Eleven, added, “We don’t know, store by store, what happened to the employees.”
According to Robert Nardoza, a public affairs officer from the U.S. Attorney’s New York office, the 18 people taken into custody were fingerprinted for an extensive criminal record search, released on an immigration bond if they did not have a criminal history, and “placed into administrative immigration proceedings.”
“They will be treated fairly and according to the law. Whether or not it results in their removal or deportation will be taken on a case-by-case basis,” said Mr. Nardoza. “We consider them victims who’ve been exploited. In each and every case, the court will determine what, if any, restitution will be awarded.”
ICE spokesmen said that despite the illegal aliens having been taken into custody, the focus is on prosecuting the employers and deporting only “criminal aliens and egregious immigration law violators,” as per an April 2009 shift in philosophy at ICE.
Their new “work-site enforcement strategy” focuses less on the workers themselves and is designed to penalize employers who profit from illegal workers and to deter them from hiring illegal aliens in the future.
At a news conference in Brooklyn announcing the raid, Ms. Lynch acknowledged that the case materialized “because some of these defendants, despite their lack of legal status, came forward to report the exploitation.”
While 7-Eleven declined to specify the exact number of employees working at the Sag Harbor store, The Press was able to locate a number of the former employees in an attempt to find out if all the allegations in the indictment pertained specifically to the Sag Harbor store.
One employee, who declined to be interviewed, has found work at a different 7-Eleven.
Another, Maureen Allende, said she started her first day of work at the store “at 6 a.m., and the feds came in at 6:06 a.m.” She happened to be in the parking lot after attempting to get her job back. “I just moved here, and they told me I can’t get my job back because I worked for the previous owner. They won’t hire me back,” said Ms. Allende.
When asked about hiring back legal employees, Mr. Matter said in an email, “When 7-Eleven Inc. assumes control of a store operated by a franchisee charged with a felony, the company terminates all associates employed by the franchisee. Terminated employees who provide identification required by law are eligible to reapply at other stores.”
When asked if workers such as Ms. Allende could reapply at the Sag Harbor store, no response was given.
The Press also found that an undisclosed number of employees were living at a Meadowlark Lane address owned by one of the defendants. The owner is Tariq Rana, a Pakistani citizen who “faces deportation,” according to court documents.
All of the former employees contacted either declined an interview, refused to go on record about, or said they had no knowledge of, either wages being stolen, excessive mandatory hours being worked or being forced to live in a house owned by the defendants—even though some of them were doing just that—as the indictment alleges.
Their reluctance may be explained by the fact that, according to court documents, they may be compelled to testify in the case against their former bosses, according to court documents.
“The government is prepared to present documentary evidence showing that the defendants employed illegal aliens under stolen identities … [such as] bank records, the testimony of illegal alien employees and the testimony of identity theft victims,” wrote Ms. Lynch.
“What we typically see in recent work-site cases is the aliens are offered to help prosecute the ringleaders and in return are granted some type of legal status,” explained immigration expert Jessica Vaughan, policy director for the Center for Immigration Studies. “They either get a temporary reprieve or a non-immigrant visa, which can lead to a green card if they pursue it. In recent years, ICE has tended to be more lenient.”
“They are people like you and I. The unilateral firing adds insult to injury for these workers,” said Pam Miller, a neighbor of the former employees living on Meadowlark Lane. “What happens to the people who need their week-to-week paycheck? I understand trying to end the exploitation, but it is hard to see people miss so much income, especially a father with kids.”
The last time the Meadowlark Lane address was visited in hopes of getting an interview, a woman and two children answered the door. They said the 7-Eleven workers no longer lived there “because they don’t work at the 7-Eleven anymore.”