California Retailer in Broad Immigration Investigation

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California Retailer in Broad Immigration Investigation

NEW YORK -- A Northern California convenience store operator with 26 Fast and Easy stores, two Arby's restaurants, a Taco Bell and a wholesale distribution company based in Benicia, Calif., is at the center of a wide-ranging investigation involving immigration violations, according to a report in the San Francisco Chronicle.

Ashraf "Mike" Ali started out as an entry-level clerk at a Circle K in Healdsburg, Calif., then spent 25 years building a network of convenience stores and fast-food restaurants, the report said.

Last week hundreds of federal and state agents raided 67 sites around Northern California, including Ali's businesses and his home, and arrested 32 workers for alleged immigration violations, according to the newspaper.

Ali's employees, and Ali himself, told the Chronicle that agents asked workers questions about their immigration status, and some questions that appear to go well beyond immigration.

Ali said in an interview that agents had asked workers and acquaintances what he does with the money he earns, how often he travels abroad, what mosques he attends and whether he has ever given money to employees and asked them to send it out of the country for him.

Ali, who said he has not been interviewed by authorities, said he had done nothing wrong and was the victim of discrimination based on his Pakistani roots.

The raids occurred last Wednesday. Agents searched Ali's house, and also carted away documents from a distribution warehouse in Benicia, the news report stated.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the investigative arm of the Department of Homeland Security, detained 26 men and six women in the raids -- from India, Mexico, Pakistan, Nepal and El Salvador -- on suspected immigration violations, spokeswoman Sharon Rummery said. As of Monday, 24 remained in custody, she said.

The newspaper reported that other agencies involved were the Small Business Administration, where officials said they were looking into possible abuses of federally guaranteed small-business loans, the state Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control, which regulates liquor licenses, and the Internal Revenue Service.

LaRae Quy, an FBI special agent and spokeswoman in San Francisco, said last week only that the FBI was interested in "matters that are apart from those within illegal immigration enforcement," according to the Chronicle.