PHOENIX – Over the weekend, Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents served warrants at several business locations connected to a Phoenix-area car wash chain and detained more than 220 staff members.
Fourteen people were arrested on federal criminal charges and could appear in court as early as Monday.
Under the Obama administration, ICE has backed away from large-scale worksite raids that result in the arrests of unauthorized immigrant laborers. Instead, the administration has focused on cracking down on employers who hire immigrants without proper documentation.
ICE spokeswoman Amber Cargile said this latest operation — against a chain of Danny's Family Car Washes and the staffing agency HR Betty — was no different.
While 223 employees were initially detained for questioning from 16 locations, Cargile said the focus of the two-year investigation is on the managers.
"This is a targeted criminal case, and we are investigating employers that are named in a federal indictment," Cargile said. "We are investigating allegations of fraud, identity theft and financial violations."
The 14 people arrested on criminal charges include a mix of U.S. citizens and Mexican nationals. The federal court could unseal the indictment against them as early as Monday.
As for the unauthorized immigrant employees who were detained for questioning, Cargile said on Saturday they would be "considered on a case by case basis" for whether they would be placed in removal proceedings.
By Sunday evening, ICE released information that 179 of the immigrant workers had qualified for prosecutorial discretion and had been released.
Thirty workers who have criminal records or a prior immigration history — like previous deportations — are still being held in ICE custody.
Immigrant rights activist Tania Unzueta of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network said that means this operation has targeted workers.
"It brings this entire air of fear through the community," Unzueta said. "We have been seeing a lot of that, of people asking us whether if it is okay to go outside, whether it is okay for them to go to work on Monday."
Some immigrant rights activists expressed surprised that ICE was behind the operation, since most worksite enforcement in the area to date has been by the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office. In contrast to ICE's stated goal of going after employers who hire unauthorized immigrants, the MCSO typically arrests workers who use fake documents on state felony identity theft and forgery charges.
The website for Danny's Family Car Wash indicates that the company recently hosted a fundraiser in partnership with several local law enforcement agencies to benefit the families of a fallen police officer and a fallen firefighter.