A group of 7-Eleven store in New York and Virginia were taken into custody by federal authorities Monday as part of a criminal immigrant employment investigation that the Department of Homeland Security is describing as one of the largest in history.
Fourteen stores were raided Monday and nine individuals -- eight men and one woman -- were indicted on allegations that store owners helped smuggle workers into the U.S. The immigrant workers are believed to be from Pakistan, the Associated Press reports. The New York raids were centered on Long Island.
The nine were charged with conspiring to commit wire fraud, stealing identities, and concealing and harboring dozens of illegal immigrants, according to an Immigration and Customs Enforcement statement. The workers were equipped with more than 20 identities stolen from U.S. citizens, were housed at properties owned by the store owners and had large portions of their wages stolen by managers, the statement also alleges.
The defendants "not only systematically employed illegal immigrants, they concealed their crimes by raiding the cradle and grave to steal the identities of children and even the dead," U.S. Attorney Loretta Lynch said in a statement.
The employers housed them in illegal boarding rooms, "in effect creating a modern day plantation system," Lynch added.
The defendants are to appear in court later Monday at courthouses in Central Islip, New York, and Norfolk, Va., and face up to 20 years in prison if convicted of conspiracy.
Homeland Security Investigations Special Agent-in-Charge James T. Hayes, Jr. said the alleged criminal employement had gone on for more than a decade.
"The 7-11 franchises seized today will be better known for their big fraud than their Big Gulp. As alleged, the franchise owners knowingly and repeatedly employed an illegal workforce and abused and exploited that workforce for more than 13 years," he said. "This charged criminal scheme had a vast detrimental effect on both the employees who were overworked and cheated out of wages, as well as the more than 25 American citizens whose lives were upended by the theft of their identities in furtherance of the scheme."
The identities, according to court documents, allegedly came from people in seven states, including a child, three dead people and a Coast Guard cadet.
Court filings indicate the government is pushing to forfeit the franchise rights to ten 7-Eleven stores in New York and four 7-Eleven stores in Virginia, in addition to five New York homes worth more than $1.3 million.
"According to the Department of Homeland Security, the case announced today constitutes the largest criminal immigration forfeiture in its history," the ICE statement said.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents are now inspecting 30 7-Eleven franchise stores across the country for similar human smuggling infractions.
A 7-Eleven spokesman said the company was cooperating with the investigation, but declined further comment.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.