By JOHN MINCHILLO and ELLIOT SPAGAT
SANDUSKY, Ohio (AP) — U.S. immigration agents made more than 100 arrests on Tuesday at a gardening and landscaping company in Ohio, carrying out one of the largest such stings in recent years as part of the Trump administration’s crackdown on employers who hire people who are in the country illegally.
The 114 arrests occurred at two sites run by Corso’s Flower & Garden Center. One of them is in Sandusky, a resort city on Lake Erie, and another nearby in Castalia. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said it expects there to be criminal charges, including identity theft and tax evasion.
No criminal charges have been filed against Corso’s, but the employer is under investigation, authorities said. Khaalid Walls, an agency spokesman, said “a large volume of business documents” were seized.
The sting came about as a result of the increased scrutiny the Trump administration has been giving employers. That started about a year after the president took office and came months after a increase in deportation arrests. The crackdown is likely to please immigration hawks but may alienate industries and companies that rely on immigrant labor.
In April, agents arrested about 100 workers at a meatpacking plant in rural Tennessee in a show of force that has been seen rarely since the days of President George W. Bush’s administration. No criminal charges have been filed against the employer.
Tuesday’s operation was rehearsed and carried out with quiet efficiency. At the sprawling Castalia location — covered with trees, flowers and greenhouse tarps — no workers were seen running as about 100 law enforcement workers from a variety of agencies established a perimeter. A voice on a radio called attention to specific employees who might try to flee, but none did.
Corso’s did not immediately return a message seeking information on the workers’ home countries.
The investigation into Corso’s began in October 2017, when the U.S. Border Patrol arrested a woman who had illegally given stolen identity documents to job applicants in the country, said Steve Francis, head of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations unit in Detroit.
The document vendor led investigators to the landscaping business, where they examined company documents for irregularities, Francis said. Some of the Social Security numbers they discovered belonged to dead people.
Of the 313 employees whose records were examined, 123 were deemed suspect and targeted for arrest and facing the criminal charges of identity theft and, in nearly all of the cases, tax evasion.
“We verified that a lot of U.S. persons were obviously unaware of this. It’s caused them a lot of hardship,” Francis said. “It’s not one that we’re looking for strictly as a worksite immigration raid.”
Immigration officials have been increasingly auditing companies to verify their employees are authorized to work in this country.
There were 2,282 employer audits opened between Oct. 1 and May 4, nearly a 60 percent jump from the 1,360 audits that were opened between October 2016 and September 2017. Many of those were started after audits were conducted at 100 7-Eleven franchises in 17 states in January.