Ten 7-Eleven franchise stores on eastern Long Island, including the one in Sag Harbor, and four franchises in Virginia were seized by the United States Justice Department on Monday morning, their owners accused of identity theft, conspiring to commit wire fraud, and harboring illegal immigrants who worked at the stores, while simultaneously skimming their wages.
The United States Attorney’s Office in Brooklyn indicted the owners on Monday. In a press release from the office of Loretta E. Lynch, U.S. attorney for the eastern district of New York, the government said that the eight men and one woman charged would use stolen identities to smuggle “dozens of illegal immigrants” into the country, then employ them at the stores, providing housing for them, while stealing “substantial portions” of the vulnerable workers’ weekly pay.
Five houses belonging to the franchise owners, which the federal prosecutor said were being used as “plantation-style” housing for the workers, were seized by the Justice Department, as well.
The identities stolen included those from children as young as 8 years old and from “three dead people and a Coast Guard cadet,” according to the release. The defendants “stole significant portions of the illegal immigrants’ wages, rather than paying the workers in full,” the statement said.
“From their 7-Eleven stores, the defendants dispersed wire fraud and identity theft along with Slurpees and hot dogs,” Ms. Lynch said in the statement. “These defendants ruthlessly exploited their immigrant employees, stealing their wages and requiring them to live in unregulated boarding houses, in effect creating a modern day plantation system,” Ms. Lynch said.
The press release calls the investigation one of the largest ever into criminal immigrant employment, and said it is being conducted by the Justice Department along with Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Department of Homeland Security.
The Justice Department believes the operation has been going on since 2000, resulting in over 50 illegal immigrants being brought into the country.
The investigation is still ongoing, with more stores targeted by the investigators, according to Ms. Lynch’s office.
Eight of the nine were arrested and arraigned on Monday afternoon at the United States District Court in Central Islip. Among them were Farrukh Baig, 57, and Bushra Baig, 49, both of Head of Harbor, who own the Sag Harbor franchise and a house in St. James on the North Shore. Also arrested and arraigned were Malik Yousaf, 51, of South Setauket, Ramon Nanas, 49, of Great River, Ummar Uppal, 48, of Islip Terrace, Zahid Baig, 52, and Tariq Rana, 34, of Chesapeake, Va., and Shannawaz Baig, 62, of Virginia Beach.
All eight pled not guilty, and are being held without bail.
The ninth suspect, Azhar Zia, 49, of Great River, is still at large, and is being sought by the Department of Homeland Security.
The Sag Harbor 7-Eleven was closed on Monday morning, but a sign in the window promised it would reopen later in the day. By that evening, it had reopened, presumably under corporate management.