ICE Raids 7-Eleven Stores Across U.S., Promises More to Come

January 11, 2018 by · Leave a Comment 

Federal immigration agents Wednesday raided nearly100 7-Eleven franchise stores in 18 states and Washington, D.C., including four in Los Angeles and one in Culver City, in the largest operation against an employer under Donald Trump’s presidency.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement special agents served “notices of inspection” —  also known as I-9 audit notices — to 98 7-Eleven franchise stores, and conducted interviews with the stores’ employees and managers. Notices of inspection are “a tool used by ICE to ensure that
businesses are operating with employees who have proper work authorization,” according to the federal agency.

Twenty-one people suspected of being in the U.S. illegally were administratively arrested and given notices to appear in immigration court, according to ICE.

Five stores were raided in Southern California — four in Los Angeles and one in Culver City, said ICE spokeswoman Lori K. Haley.

ICE did not release specific locations, but one of the stores was in the Koreatown area, where a lone employee with a valid green card was working when more than a half-dozen agents arrived and closed the store for about 20 minutes, according to The Associated Press. The agents, who arrived in unmarked cars, told arriving customers that the store was closed briefly for an inspection.

Derek Benner, a top official at ICE, told the AP that the operation was “the first of many” and “a harbinger of what’s to come” for employers.
He said there would be more employment audits and investigations, though there
is no numerical goal.

“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. From there, we will look at whether these cases warrant an administrative posture or criminal investigation,” said 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,” Benner said. “It’s going to be inclusive of everything that we see out there.”

In 2013, ICE conducted an investigation into various 7-Eleven franchises that resulted in the arrest of nine franchise owners and managers for conspiring to commit wire fraud, stealing identities and concealing and harboring illegal immigrants employed at their stores. All but one — who remained a fugitive until his arrest in November 2017 — pleaded guilty and were ordered to pay more than $2.6 million in restitution for back wages stolen from workers.

Tuesday’s notices of inspections were served in Washington, D.C., and in the states of California, Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Maryland, Michigan, Missouri, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Virginia and Washington.

Irving, Texas-based 7-Eleven Stores Inc., which has more than 8,600 stores nationwide, released a statement in response to the raids, saying its “franchisees are independent business owners and are solely responsible for their employees, including deciding who to hire and verifying their eligibility to work in the United States. This means that all store associates in a franchised store are employees of the franchisee and not 7-Eleven Inc.

“As part of the 7-Eleven franchise agreement, 7-Eleven requires all franchise business owners to comply with all federal, state and local employment laws,” the statement continued. “This obligation requires 7-Eleven franchisees to verify work eligibility in the U.S. for all of their prospective
employees prior to hiring. 7-Eleven takes compliance with immigration laws seriously and has terminated the franchise agreements of franchisees convicted of violating these laws.”

Benner said the Trump administration is pursuing “its own kind of unique strategy” tied to its broader emphasis on fighting illegal immigration, including enforcement on the border. Some workers may get arrested in the operations, but authorities are targeting employers because they are job magnets for people to come to the country illegally.

“We need to make sure that employers are on notice that we are going to come out and ensure that they’re being compliant,” Benner said. “For those that don’t, we’re going to take some very aggressive steps in terms of criminal investigations to make sure that we address them and hold them accountable.”

Judge Blocks DOJ Policy Cutting Funds to ‘Sanctuary Cities’

November 16, 2017 by · Leave a Comment 

A federal judge in Philadelphia issued a preliminary injunction Wednesday blocking a federal government attempt to withhold law-enforcement money from so-called “sanctuary cities” — a ruling that could impact a lawsuit Los Angeles has filed over the same issue.

The lawsuits stem from the U.S. Justice Department’s newly imposed requirements for the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant Program, including a mandate that sanctuary jurisdictions will be ineligible for the funds unless they cooperate with federal attempts to identify and arrest
immigrants in the country illegally.

Los Angeles, Philadelphia and other cities have long attempted to limit their cooperation with immigration agents, arguing that colluding with the federal authorities discourages immigrants living in the country illegally from reporting crimes or cooperating with local law enforcement.

“We are pleased with the judge’s decision,” said Rob Wilcox, a spokesman for Los Angeles City Attorney Mike Feuer,

In October, Feuer said, “We’re fighting the Trump administration’s continuing attempts to violate the law by using federal funds as a ‘weapon’ to advance the president’s immigration agenda.”

While the Byrne grant is typically a small amount of money — making up roughly $1 million annually out of Los Angeles’ $8 billion-plus budget — it has become a central focus of local jurisdictions’ efforts to oppose the Trump administration’s hardline stances on illegal immigration.

Los Angeles also sued over new requirements attached to the Community Oriented Policing Services grant, which awards bonus points to jurisdictions that agree to focus the use of grant funds on illegal immigration and commit to policies at detention facilities to promote the federal government’s immigration policies.

Los Angeles filed its lawsuit in October. The state of California, San Francisco and Chicago have also filed lawsuits over the issue, and a federal judge in September granted Chicago a similar injunction barring the Trump administration from requiring sanctuary cities to cooperate with immigration agents in order to receive public safety grants.

Feuer said in October that he objected to the new guidelines for several legal reasons, arguing in part that the Justice Department does not have the authority to impose rules on the grants because they were created by Congress.

The Los Angeles Police Department since 1979 has had a policy of restricting its enforcement of federal immigration laws, which has put it in conflict with President Donald Trump as he has looked for various ways to get local jurisdictions to be more cooperative on the laws — including withholding federal grants.

“LAPD made the right call decades ago that restricting officers from civil immigration enforcement makes us all safer by encouraging victims and witnesses of crime, irrespective of immigration status, to contact police,” Feuer said in October. “For the Trump administration to tie unrelated, civil immigration enforcement terms to a community-policing grant that protects kids in some of L.A.’s most underserved neighborhoods jeopardizes public safety and is unconstitutional.”

In his ruling in favor of Philadelphia, U.S. District Judge Michael Baylson disputed the term “sanctuary city,” calling it a “misnomer.”

“Philadelphia is not a sanctuary for anyone involved in criminal conduct, nor is it a sanctuary as to any law enforcement investigation, prosecution or imprisonment after having been found guilty of a crime. The court does not need a label for Philadelphia’s policies,” Baylson wrote.

Los Angeles has received more than $1 million annually since 1997 from the Byrne grant, according to Feuer’s office.

Los Angeles applied for and received COPS grants in 2012 and 2016, including a $3.125 million award in 2016 that was used to help expand the “Summer Night Lights” and “Fall Friday Nights” gang-reduction programs.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions has defended the new policies as necessary to help fight illegal immigration.

“So-called `sanctuary’ policies make all of us less safe because they intentionally undermine our laws and protect illegal aliens who have committed crimes,” Sessions said when he announced the guidelines. “These policies also encourage illegal immigration and even human trafficking by perpetuating the lie that in certain cities, illegal aliens can live outside the law.”


California demanda al Gobierno federal por amenazas a ‘ciudades santuario’

August 18, 2017 by · Leave a Comment 

California – California demandó esta semana al Gobierno federal por sus amenazas de retener fondos a las “ciudades santuario”, aquellas que han decidido de manera municipal no colaborar con el Servicio de Inmigración y Control de Aduanas (ICE) en la persecución de inmigrantes en situación irregular.

Por medio de un comunicado de prensa, el fiscal general de California, Xavier Becerra, anunció el lunes la denuncia contra “el intento inconstitucional” de supeditar la adjudicación de fondos federales a que las fuerzas de seguridad locales y estatales ayuden en sus labores al ICE.

“El Gobierno de Trump no puede manipular los requisitos de concesión de fondos federales para presionar a los estados, condados o municipios para que ejecuten las leyes federales de inmigración”, señaló Becerra.

Según los datos de la Fiscalía californiana, más de 28 millones de dólares de ayuda a través del fondo federal Edward Byrnes Memorial Justice Assistance Grant, destinado a programas de seguridad y prevención del crimen, corren peligro en California debido a los nuevos criterios estipulados por la Casa Blanca para su obtención.

El Departamento de Justicia confiaba en doblegar a las “ciudades santuario” con estas nuevas reglas que incluyen garantizar el acceso sin límite a los agentes federales en las ciudades para que busquen a indocumentados, o la obligatoriedad de que la policía municipal avise con un plazo de 48 horas de antelación acerca de cualquier intención de liberar a un inmigrante en situación irregular.

“Esto es una pura intimidación con la intención de obligar a nuestros cuerpos de seguridad a cambiar las políticas y prácticas que han determinado nuestra seguridad pública”, indicó Becerra.

Además, el fiscal aseguró que lucharán contra estas acciones federales “ilegales” que harían que California fuera “menos segura”.

En su comparecencia para anunciar la denuncia, Becerra estuvo acompañado por el fiscal de San Francisco, Dennis Herrera, quien también presentó una demanda en el mismo sentido en nombre de esta ciudad el pasado viernes.

Las acciones legales de California y San Francisco se unen a otras iniciativas en todo el país como la de Chicago, que la semana pasada denunció al Departamento de Justicia por negarle fondos federales debido a que es una “ciudad santuario”.

Como respuesta a la demanda de Chicago, el fiscal general, Jeff Sessions, afirmó que esa denuncia no servirá para que reciban los fondos federales, si no dejan de ser una “ciudad santuario”, y aseguró que “el dinero de los contribuyentes federales no ayudará a una ciudad que se niega a ayudar a sus propios ciudadanos”.


Feds Raid Bell Gardens Bicycle Casino

April 4, 2017 by · Leave a Comment 

Bell Gardens relies heavily on revenue from the Bicycle Hotel and Casino, but today’s raid by federal agents could lead to a substantial economic hit to the Southeast city if the Casino is closed for a prolonged period, or shut down permanently.

Dozens of law enforcement officials with the Los Angeles High Intensity Financial Crime Area Task Force — which includes the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations (ICE), IRS Criminal Investigation, the California Department of Justice, Bureau of Gambling Control and the United States Attorney’s office — executed a search warrant at the Casino around 7 a.m. Tuesday.

Federal task force raids Bicycle Hotel and Casino in Bell Gardens Tuesday morning. (EGP Photo by Nancy Martinez

Federal agents raid Bicycle Hotel and Casino in Bell Gardens Tuesday morning. (EGP Photo by Nancy Martinez)

Bell Gardens police, who have in the past taken part in other joint federal task forces, were not involved in today’s action, the department told EGP.

It is not yet clear what the task force was looking for because “The search warrant issued by a United States magistrate judge was filed under seal in relation to an ongoing investigation,” according to Virginia Kice of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. “Because the warrant is under seal, we are not able to comment on the scope or nature of the investigation.”

She said it’s “an ongoing investigation.”

Because the task force is known to target money laundering, there is speculation today’s raid could be related to organized crime.

A call by City News Service to the poker club’s legal department was not immediately returned.

(EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

(EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

With the exception of a few hotel and casino managers, most employees were allowed to leave the premises.

A woman resembling Julie Coyne, executive director of the Bicycle Casino Community Foundation, was caught by a helicopter news camera being escorted by federal agents into the Casino early in the morning.

The task force is expected to seize financial documents from the Casino. No arrests have been made so far.

The Bicycle Casino – known to many poker players as The Bike – is expected to be closed to the public for the rest of the day, but hotel guests who could show a room key card were being allowed to return to the Casino.

News of the raid spread quickly through the small city, drawing people to stand outside the facility to get a closer look.

It also led to a lot of conversation amongst neighbors, with some speculating as to the reasons behind the early morning raid.

Jorge Gonzales, a longtime city resident whose mother at one time worked for the Casino, told EGP he believes federal investigators are looking into criminal activity he says has been going on for years.

“I’m not surprised, it’s actually about time they look into what’s going on here,” he said.

“This place was put up with gangster money,” he said, referring to the Casino’s history.

Founded in the mid-1980s, the Bicycle Club was seized in 1990 by the federal government after investigators said the club was partly built with laundered drug money.


(EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

A number of casino employees — who did not want to be identified for fear of putting their already uncertain jobs at risk —told EGP they had not been told if they should show up for their next work shift.

“Most people who work here are honest, humble, good people,” said one employee. “The people gambling are not from Bell Gardens,” he added, implying the raid may be targeting activity by foreigners.

Many Bicycle Hotel and Casino employees live in Bell Gardens. Several said Tuesday they are worried about their jobs.

“I can’t imagine what will happen if they close this place down,” said one worried employee, who hopes he will still receive his paycheck this week.

“It’s not beneficial for the casino or the city” for it to be closed down, interjected a woman in Spanish.

The Bicycle Casino Hotel opened with great anticipation in December 2015. Gov. Jerry Brown was at both the groundbreaking and grand opening of the $50 million, seven-story, 100-room hotel.

In years past, nearly half of Bell Gardens’ General Fund revenue has come from the Casino. It is expected to generate $13 million in funds for the city during the 2016-17 fiscal year that ends in June, an amount projected to be slightly higher in 2017-2018.

(EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

(EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

A long time closure or the revoking of the Casino’s license could have a negative impact on city finances. In 2012, when Casino revenue dwindled to an all-time low, Bell Gardens found itself with a budget deficit that took a toll on some city services.

Call to Bell Gardens officials for comment were not immediately returned.

The possibility of such drastic action – long time closure or revoking the Casino’s license – seem unlikely based on similar raids of other Casinos.

Federal authorities last year investigated the Gardena card club formerly known as the Normandie Casino for violating anti-money laundering laws.

The partnership that ran the Normandie was ordered to pay about $2.4 million to settle federal charges that the poker club failed to report large cash transactions to federal authorities, as required.

As part of an agreement with the government, the four partners agreed to pay a $1 million fine and to forfeit nearly $1.4 million for failing to maintain an effective anti-money laundering program and conspiring to avoid reporting to the government the large cash transactions of some of the casino’s “high-roller” gamblers.

Under the Bank Secrecy Act, casinos are required to implement and maintain programs designed to prevent criminals from using the clubs to launder the large sums of cash that illegal activity can generate.

For example, casinos must record and report to the government the details of transactions involving more than $10,000 by any one gambler in a 24-hour period.

City Manager Phil Wagner does not believe the current Bicycle Hotel and Casino owners and management are the targets of this investigation citing reports that the probe is focused on individual gamblers that may or may not have used the casino to launder illegally obtained cash.

“Unfortunately for the many law-abiding customers of the Casino, its employees and the community which has suffered a great deal of negative publicity,” Wagner told EGP.

Wagner went on to criticize media reports that used today’s events as an opportunity to  bring to light “unrelated issues that happened 27 years ago when the casino was under completely different ownership and management.”

“That’s totally unfair to the Casino and to this community,” Wagner told EGP.

Even if not closed, heavy fines would hurt Casino revenue, losses that could in turn hurt the city’s budget.

The Bicycle Casino has always been the crown jewel in the working class city, longtime Bell Gardens resident Nury Balmaceda told EGP.

It “helped build all this,” she said, pointing to the surrounding development that now includes high producing retailers like Ross and Marshals and the newly opened Dunkin’ Donuts and Chipotle.

“It helped bring all these businesses here.”

Other residents were concerned by the presence of ICE agents in the Southeast city, home to a large immigration population.

“A lot of undocumented people may be afraid to come out,” noted Balmaceda, who hopes nothing bad comes out of the raid.

In addition to city revenue, The Bicycle Casino Community Foundation provides scholarships for local students, recognizes local businesses and hosts an annual Christmas celebration for low-income residents.

“This is hit for the people of Bell Gardens, in the end we are the ones who will pay for it.”

Information from City News Service was used in this report.

[Update 7:15p.m.] to include statement from Bell Gardens City Manager.

Western Union to Forfeit $586 Million For Fraud, Money Laundering

January 20, 2017 by · Leave a Comment 

The Western Union Co. has agreed to forfeit $586 million and admitted to crimes in connection with money laundering and fraud schemes, in an agreement announced Thursday by the U.S. Justice Department and Federal Trade Commission.

In its agreement with the Justice Department, Western Union admits to criminal violations, including willfully failing to maintain an effective anti-money laundering program and aiding and abetting wire fraud, officials said.

According to the written admissions, between 2004 and 2012, Western Union violated the Bank Secrecy Act and anti-fraud statutes by processing hundreds of thousands of transactions for Western Union agents and others involved in an international consumer fraud scheme.

As part of the scheme, offenders contacted victims in the United States and falsely posed as family members in need. Or, they promised prizes or job opportunities, according to a deferred prosecution agreement and an accompanying statement of facts,

Scheme participants directed the victims to wire money through Western Union to help their relative or claim their prize. Various Western Union agents were complicit, taking a cut of of the money transfer, prosecutors said.

Western Union, which is based in Englewood, Colorado, knew of, but failed to take corrective action against its agents involved in or facilitating ,fraud-related transactions, the Justice Department said in a statement.

Prosecutors said the company failed to fire or discipline agents who ,repeatedly violated federal law and Western Union policy through their illegal activity in the Central District of California, which includes Los Angeles, Orange, Ventura, Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties, and elsewhere.

The FBI and other agencies found that Shen Zhou International in Monterey Park sent more than $310 million in Western Union transactions to China — about 50 percent of which were structured to avoid federal money reporting regulations, prosecutors said.

The owner of Shen Zhou — Zhihe “Frank” Wang, 60, of Monterey Park — pleaded guilty in 2013 to one count of structuring international transactions to evade reporting requirement in Santa Ana federal court.

Wang admitted making numerous transmission to China in $2,500 increments, which is just below the $3,000 amount that triggers various reporting and record-keeping requirements for money transmitters.

Western Union had policies against that, but took no disciplinary action against Shen Zhou beyond one 90-day probation in January 2006 during which Shen Zhou continued to process transactions, according to the Justice Department.

“This settlement should go a long way in thwarting the proceeds of illicit transactions being sent to China to fund human smuggling or drug trafficking, as well as to interrupt the ease with which scam artists flout U.S. banking regulations in schemes devised to defraud vulnerable Americans,” said Deirdre Fike, the assistant director in charge of the FBI’s Los Angeles field office.

Copyright © 2019 Eastern Group Publications/EGPNews, Inc. ·