WASHINGTON -- Federal officials arrested more than 300 illegal workers at 60 Wal-Mart stores across the country early Thursday morning and searched the office of one of the retail chain's corporate executives, a federal official said.
Several law enforcement sources who spoke on condition of anonymity said the investigation grew out of earlier probes of Wal-Mart cleaning crew contractors in 1998 and 2001. Based on recordings of meetings and conversations among Wal-Mart executives, managers and contractors, the law enforcement officials said "various immigration violations had continued to occur with direct knowledge by the Wal-Mart corporation."
The workers, members of cleaning crews that the company hired through contractors, were arrested as they finished their night shifts at stores in 21 states. All were in the country illegally, according to Garrison Courtney, a spokesman with Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Wal-Mart Stores Inc., based in Bentonville, Ark., is the world's largest retailer.
Wal-Mart spokeswoman Mona Williams said the company got wind of the raids when store managers started calling headquarters Thursday morning.
"They arrested a number of members of the floor cleaning crews. They are employed by outside contractors; they're not Wal-Mart associates," Williams said.
She said the company uses more than 100 third-party contractors for cleaning services in more than 700 stores in the United States. "We require each of these contractors to use only legal workers," she said.
Many of the workers said they were Eastern European and a few were of other ethnicities, Courtney said.
The arrests stem from a November 1998 investigation done in conjunction with the Pennsylvania attorney general's office. That investigation also targeted contractors and subcontractors used by Wal-Mart to clean stores.
Employers are required to check forms known as I-9's, filled out by every new employee, and keep the forms for a specified period of time. An employer can face civil and criminal penalties for knowingly hiring illegal immigrants or failing to comply with the I-9 regulations.
Courtney also said officials searched the office of one of Wal-Mart's executives. Williams could not say whether agents conducted a search at the headquarters and said she did not know of any other Wal-Mart administrative offices where searches may have occurred.
"We are currently trying to understand the scope and detail of the investigation. We are committed to cooperating," Williams said. She was unsure how many contractors might be involved.
The workers arrested were detained at local immigration offices, Courtney said. If they had no previous criminal record, they were released with notices to appear before immigration judges.
The states where arrests were made are Alabama, Arkansas, Arizona, Connecticut, Delaware, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Maryland, Michigan, North Carolina, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia and West Virginia.
Wal-Mart has 1,494 discount stores, 1,386 Supercenters, 532 Sam's Clubs and 56 Neighborhood Markets in the United States. The company has about 1.1 million employees in the United States and 300,000 in other countries. Wal-Mart had sales last year of $244.5 billion.