U.S. immigration agents descended on Chipotle Mexican Grill restaurants on Tuesday, interviewing employees in about two dozen outlets in Los Angeles, Atlanta and other cities.
Roughly 500 undocumented workers have been fired as a result of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) audits of the popular burrito chain’s hiring paperwork in Minnesota, Virginia and Washington, D.C.
In addition to the cities mentioned above, ICE agents also interviewed workers in Minnesota and Washington, D.C., said Robert Luskin, Chipotle’s outside counsel and a partner at Patton Boggs in Washington.
Luskin said ICE gave Chipotle enough advance notice of the interviews by plain-clothed agents that the company had the opportunity to send a note to employees telling them it wanted them to cooperate.
U.S. immigration enforcement has shifted considerably in recent years. Notably, the Obama administration is cracking down on employers rather than illegal workers.
Carl Shusterman, a former prosecutor for ICE’s predecessor agency, the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, said interviews like the ones ICE conducted at Chipotle on Tuesday show how the administration is ratcheting up pressure.
He also acknowledged that advance notification of upcoming ICE interviews might scare off any undocumented workers.
Denver-based Chipotle has won plaudits from Wall Street for its seemingly uncanny ability to hold down labor costs. That ability has been a major factor behind its six-fold increase in share price since late 2008. Chipotle shares fell 2.4 percent Tuesday to $260.40.
Should the investigations uncover widespread disregard of immigration laws, co-chief executives Steve Ells and Monty Moran could face criticism for allowing the practice to spread through the 1,100-unit U.S. operation.
Unlike many rivals that sell franchises, Chipotle owns and operates its restaurants and is ultimately responsible for hiring.