Editorial: Forceful warning not to exploit immigrants

Farrukh Baig, left, and his wife, Bushra Baig, Farrukh Baig, left, and his wife, Bushra Baig, are brought out of the couple's St. James home on June 17, 2013, by federal agents. Photo Credit: Howard Schnapp

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There's a high price to pay for profiteering off people in the country illegally. That's the message unscrupulous employers received Monday when federal officials accused the owners and operators of 10 Long Island 7-Eleven stores of a scheme to harbor and rip off dozens of immigrant workers.

Each of the eight men and one woman indicted yesterday faces up to 20 years in prison if convicted of charges of providing these workers, who don't appear to have legal immigration status, with purloined identities and falsified payroll records. Knowledge that the workers couldn't report their exploitation without risk of being deported enabled those arrested to make them work punishing hours and then steal from the meager checks to boot, officials said.

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U.S. Attorney Loretta Lynch also moved to seize the franchise rights to the convenience stores as well as five houses the defendants own and rented to their workers. That double blow -- the prospect of losing both their freedom and their lucrative businesses -- should be a powerful deterrent for any other employers who contemplate exploiting illegal labor.

It's also an important message for law enforcement to hammer home as Congress works to craft immigration reforms that will stanch the illegal flow of people across the borders, and create a system for legal immigration that will meet the needs of employers and the nation's economy.

The indictment described a cold-blooded, decade-long criminal enterprise that cruelly exploited helpless workers. The defendants were accused of hiring, and possibly smuggling, 50 workers from Pakistan and Southeast Asia over the years and providing them with Social Security numbers stolen from people from around the country, both living and dead. They also allegedly rented houses they owned to the workers. Once the employees were beholden to them both for a place to live and work, the store owners allegedly falsified payroll records and stole a large portion of the workers' wages.

The 7-Eleven stores on Long Island and four in Virginia included in the indictment are franchises. Twelve were owned and/or operated by a married couple from Head of the Harbor, the other two by brothers, one from Great River and the other from East Islip. They are only a small fraction of the 7-Eleven stores on Long Island, and none of the stores covered in the indictment were controlled by the 7-Eleven corporate parent.

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Any immigration reforms that Congress ultimately enacts must include tighter workplace monitoring and enforcement to ensure that the people on an employer's payroll are legally entitled to be here. Still, the shameful truth is that there always will those willing to exploit workers to make a buck.

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