ICE broadening investigation against Chipotle

Published 10 February 2011

Federal immigration officials are broadening their investigation of Mexican fast-food chain Chipotle to include restaurants in Virginia and D.C.; Chipotle was already forced to fire hundreds of employees in Minnesota after an audit found that many of its employees had used forged documents; the investigation is part of the Obama administration’s efforts to clamp down on companies hiring undocumented workers; ICE agents are conducting “I-9 audits” in which investigators pour through hundreds of I-9, payroll, and other hiring forms; their goal is to spark the same level of care and compliance that companies have for tax forms; last year Ice agents audited 2,740 companies, resulting in a record $7 million in fines

Federal immigration officials are broadening their investigation of Mexican fast-food chain Chipotle after a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) probe found that Chipotle had hired undocumented workers in Minnesota.

ICE agents examined the hiring documents of more than fifty locations in Minnesota and found many “suspect” I-9 forms. As a result, the company was forced to dismiss hundreds of its employees.

Chipotle requires two different documents to verify that an employee has legally entered the country, but many illegal immigrants use forged documents.

Tanya, a long time Chipotle employee who is working in the United States illegally, said “I believe that when you go to apply there, they know beforehand that you don’t have papers.”

She added that forged documents like driver’s license, Social Security cards, and residency permits were easy to obtain. “Many people offer them. It is part of coming here and trying to make a better life for your children,” she said.

ICE is broadening its audits of Chipotle to include restaurants in Virginia and Washington, D.C.

Company officials warn that more employees may be let go.

The investigation is part of the Obama administration’s broader efforts to clamp down on employers who hire undocumented workers. The administration has directed ICE to conduct “I-9 audits” where investigators pour through hundreds of documents to verify that employees have entered the country legally.

When notified of an audit, employers are required to submit copies of its I-9 employment eligibility forms along with other payroll documents. If false documents are found, the company is forced to fire the employees in question.

Chris Arnold, a Chipotle spokesman, said, “Immigration laws as they currently stand put employers in a very difficult position.”

He explained that employers cannot screen employees beforehand as those practices would be construed as discriminatory, and the sudden mass firings upset immigration advocates and the employees.

After being fired, Tanya said, “after the six years I worked there, or the 10 years of some of my colleagues, they get rid of us without warning.”

In Minnesota, protestors descended upon Chipotle restaurants citing poor working conditions, late payments, and the sudden firing of its employees. Eight protestors were arrested in Minneapolis after chaining themselves together and blocking the entrance to one restaurant.

Their signs read “Chipotle: You cannot sell Mexican food and then sell out Mexican workers.”
Chipotle complains that it was forced to fire hundreds of its employees in Minnesota without time to correct paper work errors.

The audit of Chipotle is a warning to other companies to take notice.

Jacqueline Longnecker, president of Employment Verification Resources Inc., said, “When you get a big name like Chipotle, it stands out and sends a message.”

Longnecker said, “The onus is on employers now … It sends the message that nobody is going to be excused from this,” before adding that “many companies — both large and small — do not recognize the potential liabilities they now face.”

Last year the Obama administration audited 2,740 companies, resulting in a record $7 million in fines against businesses that employed illegal workers.

ICE is focusing its efforts on corporate hiring practices and aims to inspire the same level of compliance as firms already do with the Internal Revenue Service.

According to Gillian Brigham, an ICE spokeswoman, “We want employers to understand that the integrity of their employment records is just as important as their tax records.”

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