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Illegal-immigration crackdown on Chipotle restaurants could hurt workers, activist says

February 7, 2011 |  7:52 am

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Chipotle Mexican Grill has become the latest target of a U.S. government crackdown on companies that hire undocumented workers, bringing mixed reactions from an immigrant-rights activist.

As part of the crackdown, Chipotle restaurants in Virginia and Washington, D.C., will be audited by federal immigration officials.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokeswoman Gillian Brigham said the agency is pushing a broader strategy of "attacking" companies that hire illegal workers and focusing on corporate hiring practices.

"We want employers to understand that the integrity of their employment records is just as important as their tax records," she said. The goal, she said, is for immigration authorities to inspire the same level of compliance -– and fear -– that the Internal Revenue Service creates.

Advocates for immigrant rights said such efforts will just lead to more of the same -- lost jobs for impoverished workers.

"While we're happy that high-profile raids have decreased, the government has shifted to another enforcement-only approach," said Carl Bergquist, a policy advocate with the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles.

Bergquist said that in situations like Chipotle's, businesses are put on the spot and forced to make decisions quickly. "The end result is that people lost their livelihoods," he said.

The Denver-based chain received "notices of inspections" from the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement at about 60 restaurants, Chipotle spokesman Chris Arnold said. That follows a similar probe at all Chipotle locations in Minnesota last year that forced the company to fire some illegal workers. California, which has dozens of Chipotle locations, has not been affected by the probe, Arnold said.   

Arnold warned that more employee dismissals may come. 

"If they cannot provide legal documentation, then we cannot legally employ them," Arnold said, declining to specify how many have already been fired.

Arnold said the policy is working at Chipotle, which "hopes to put the matter behind us" by working with immigration authorities to improve hiring practices and expanding participation in the government’s E-verify system, an online program that uses federal databases to check whether employees are in the country legally and authorized to work.

-- Shan Li

Photo credit: Associated Press

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