February 4, 2011 / 7:27 PM / 7 years ago

Immigration probe of Chipotle widens

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Upscale burrito chain Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc faces a wider probe of its hiring by immigration officials, after the company came under scrutiny in Minnesota and had to fire workers.

Pedestrians pass a Chipotle Mexican restaurant in Arlington, Virginia February 4, 2011. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

Chipotle has received U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) “notices of inspection” for restaurants in Washington, D.C., and Virginia, co-Chief Executive Monty Moran told Reuters on Friday.

The new notices follow ICE inspections of the restaurant chain’s Minnesota employees. Labor leaders say as many as 700 Chipotle workers were subsequently fired after their eligibility for legal employment in the United States could not be verified.

The company, which operates more than 1,000 restaurants, mostly in the United States, declined to say how many Minnesota workers were fired.

“Because this is an ongoing issue with ICE, we are not disclosing details like that,” Moran told Reuters in an email.

“We have always taken this issue very seriously, and over the last five years we have done a great deal to improve our systems and our document review capabilities and procedures,” Moran said.

“Certainly this incident has been eye-opening for us and caused us to redouble our efforts to make sure we are doing all we can short of running afoul of the mandate of the Department of Justice.”

Chipotle, a Wall Street darling whose shares have gone from under $40 to over $240 in just over two years, is one of the highest-profile companies to come under ICE scrutiny in what experts call a crackdown on employers.

Under President Barack Obama, immigration enforcement strategy has shifted to finding evidence to criminally charge or fine employers. ICE previously conducted large-scale raids that netted large numbers of employees, many from Mexico and Central America.

Chipotle is one of just a handful of publicly traded restaurant companies that own and operate all of their outlets. Rivals like McDonald’s Corp and KFC and Taco Bell owner Yum Brands Inc are highly franchised, and responsibility for hiring often falls to independent restaurant operators.

ICE spokeswoman Gillian Brigham told Reuters in an interview earlier this week: “Our inspections are not random. All of our work site cases and ... audits are based on leads and intelligence. So we are not picking businesses out of a hat.”

Obama backs sweeping immigration reform, and his reelection might depend on Hispanic voters who give great importance to overhauling policy to deal with some 12 million undocumented immigrants.

Shares in Chipotle, which plans to open as many as 145 restaurants in 2011, rose 3 percent, or $7.09, to close at $246.31 on the New York Stock Exchange.

Additional reporting by Ed Stoddard in Dallas; editing by John Wallace, Gary Hill

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