Homan, ICE's acting director, said immigration authorities are making an effort to target employers who hire unauthorized workers, in addition to the workers themselves.
"Businesses that hire illegal workers are a pull factor for illegal immigration and we are working hard to remove this magnet," he said.
The Irving, Texas-based 7-Eleven said its stores are independently owned franchises and it was not responsible for hiring and verifying employment eligibility.
"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 company said in a statement. "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."
Advocates for limiting immigration applauded the decision to go after employers. "People come here to find work. If they can't find work, they won't come," said Peter Nunez of the Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates stricter limits. "No one questions that the way to stop illegal immigration is to stop them from getting jobs."
Authorities previously targeted 7-Eleven stores five years ago under the Obama administration, when New York prosecutors announced the arrest of nine people who operated stores in New York and Virginia, saying the owners obtained stolen Social Security numbers to put undocumented workers on the payroll. As WNYC's Ilya Marritz reported at the time, "when 7-Eleven sent out wage checks, the store owners kept most of the money for themselves."
ICE officials then blamed 7-Eleven for keeping poor track of its payroll system, which enabled the use of Social Security numbers for multiple people.
ICE promises it's "gearing up for ... large-scale compliance inspections" this year, ICE's Homeland Security Investigations acting director Derek Benner told The Associated Press. "It's not going to be limited to large companies or any particular industry — big, medium and small."
But going after employers is like "playing whack-a-mole," immigration lawyer Amy Peck told the AP, saying that "the employees scatter in the wind and go down the street and work for somebody else."
The New York Times noted how the ICE operations compare to those under the George W. Bush and Obama administrations:
"Under President George W. Bush, ICE grabbed headlines by rounding up unauthorized workers at meatpacking plants, fruit suppliers, car washes and residences. In a shift, the agency under President Barack Obama focused on catching border crossers, deporting convicted criminals and pursuing employers on paper, by inspecting the I-9 forms that employers are required to fill out and keep to verify their workers' eligibility."
In 2008, authorities conducted some of the largest-ever workplace raids: In May, immigration agents arrested nearly 400 workers at a meatpacking plant in Postville, Iowa. Three months later, federal officials arrested about 600 workers at a manufacturing plant in Mississippi.
By 2013, during the second term of President Obama, the number of audits of employers doubled to more than 3,000 a year.
Critics said the Bush administration's workplace raids "did not create a large deterrence and it did nothing to solve the problem of the many undocumented workers who remain here contributing to our economy and supporting their families," Michael Kaufman of the American Civil Liberties Union told Gonzales.