- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 23, 2003

More than 300 illegal aliens, mostly East European nationals, were arrested yesterday in a nationwide sweep by federal authorities that targeted 61 Wal-Mart stores in 21 states, including Maryland and Virginia.

The illegal aliens, members of cleaning crews that Wal-Mart hired through contractors, were arrested at about 7 a.m. after finishing their night shifts.

Agents from the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) also searched the office of one of the firm’s corporate executives at its Bentonville, Ark., headquarters. Several boxes of documents were confiscated.

Law enforcement authorities said ICE agents believe some Wal-Mart executives and store managers were aware of the immigration status of the contract workers but did nothing about it. No criminal charges were filed, though authorities said grand-jury subpoenas were issued for unnamed Wal-Mart executives to testify, and charges could be filed.

The arrests followed investigations in 1998 and 2001 in which Wal-Mart cleaning-crew contractors were shown to have hired illegal aliens. Authorities said recorded conversations of unidentified Wal-Mart executives, managers and contractors showed that immigration violations “continued to occur with direct knowledge by the Wal-Mart corporation.”

ICE spokesman Garrison Courtney said those detained were in the United States illegally and face deportation. He said the arrests were part of a “work-site enforcement” effort spearheaded by ICE, noting that a company that knowingly hires illegal workers may be fined up to $10,000 per person.

“Employers who exploit persons in the United States for profit should be wary of our continuing enforcement efforts and should, by now, be aware that there is a penalty to pay,” Mr. Courtney said.

The detained aliens were taken to local immigration offices, where those with no criminal records or warrants were released pending appearances before a U.S. immigration judge.

Mona Williams, a Wal-Mart spokeswoman, described those arrested as members of floor-cleaning crews employed by outside contractors, not Wal-Mart associates. She said the company, the world’s largest retailer, uses more than 100 third-party contractors for cleaning services in more than 700 stores nationwide, but requires its contractors “to use only legal workers.”

“We are currently trying to understand the scope and detail of the investigation,” she said. “We are talking to [ICE] and are committed to cooperating with them.”

The arrests included raids at Wal-Mart stores in Mount Airy and Catonsville in Maryland, and Lynchburg, Winchester, Culpeper, Madison Heights, Sterling, Harrisonburg, Lexington and Richmond in Virginia.

Beyond Maryland and Virginia, ICE agents targeted stores in Alabama, Arkansas, Arizona, Connecticut, Delaware, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Michigan, North Carolina, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and West Virginia.

Most of the arrests, authorities say, took place in Pennsylvania and Texas.

Under federal law, employers face civil and criminal penalties for knowingly hiring illegal immigrants or for failing to comply with the immigration regulations.

Wal-Mart has 1,494 discount stores, 1,386 Supercenters, 532 Sam’s Club stores and 56 Neighborhood Markets in this country. The firm, with sales last year of $244.5 billion, has about 1.1 million employees in the United States and 300,000 abroad.

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