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At shuttered St. Paul bakery, immigration audit left bitter taste

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Former St. Agnes Baking Co. operations director Mike Mitchelson.
Former St. Agnes Baking Co. operations director Mike Mitchelson stands in the empty space that used to house the bakery before it abruptly closed in January on July 31, 2018.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Tucked in an industrial district outside of downtown St. Paul is a 7,500-square foot warehouse with red floors and high ceilings. For 15 years, ovens, sinks and baking benches lined the walls. The sound of large spiral mixers, handling 300 pounds of dough at a time, would echo throughout the building.

Even seven months after St. Agnes Baking Co. closed, the aroma of butter and flour still permeates the air.

"There is probably enough flour in the walls ... it's probably enough up there to still smell like something," said Mike Mitchelson, former chief operating officer for the wholesale bakery. "There was a great chemistry with everybody that worked here."

In January, St. Agnes Baking shut down as a result of an immigration audit that found half its employees were unauthorized to work in the United States.

The company wasn't the only business in Minnesota to receive this type of audit under the Trump administration. Minnesota businesses that range in size and industry — from construction and hospitality to manufacturing and agriculture — have been hit with these employment authorization inspections, as part of the government's ramped up enforcement to discourage illegal work.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement has audited at least 34 companies from January 2017 until April 2018, according to a Freedom of Information Act request submitted by MPR News in late March and fulfilled in July.

Mike Mitchelson enters the former home of St. Agnes Baking Co.
Mike Mitchelson enters the former home of St. Agnes Baking Co. in St. Paul.
Evan Frost | MPR News

However, that doesn't include pending and open cases, as they could take months or years to resolve. Most of those listed in the documents received warning notices. Two were issued fines, and two were found in compliance.

Among those audited were LeafLine Labs, a medical marijuana manufacturer headquartered in Cottage Grove; Prairie Holdings Group, an agricultural business in Worthington, Minn.; Mikros Engineering, a manufacturer in Brooklyn Park; and Super Mom's, a wholesale bakery in St. Paul Park. The companies have not returned interview requests.

St. Agnes Baking Co. was not included in the Freedom of Information Act documents sent to MPR News. Company attorney Scott Wright said it was still an open case and declined to comment on the specifics.

'Busted their ass to build this company'

It all started in December with a letter from ICE.

"Despite the drama that was out there in the rest of the news, there really wasn't anything to it," Mitchelson said. "There were no agents busting down the door or anything like that. It was quite boring."

ICE asked St. Agnes to provide three years' worth of "employment eligibility verification" forms, known as I-9s. It responded, then received a letter back saying 23 employees needed to show proper work authorization. When they couldn't, they had to be terminated.

"This was a personal conversation we had with each one of them," Mitchelson said. "And it was unfortunate. Fourteen days, boom, boom. They had to be done."

Burnt floor space and utility connections remain.
Burnt floor space and utility connections remain where industrial ovens sat inside the former home of St. Agnes Baking Co.
Evan Frost | MPR News

St. Agnes had been in business for two decades. It started as a small shop on West Seventh Street and grew over the years from 12 to about 300 accounts.

It sold bread to Twin Cities restaurants like the Loon Cafe, Burger Jones, and Bull's Horn and venues like the St. Paul Hotel, Mystic Lake Casino and U.S. Bank Stadium. The company had clearance to sell hamburger and hotdog buns at the Super Bowl, but shut down about two weeks prior.

"We used to always say we're either the biggest small bakery or the smallest big bakery," Mitchelson said. "We didn't have a whole lot of automation, a couple bun machines. Otherwise, every piece of dough coming out of this got touched by someone's hands."

St. Agnes made about $3.5 million in sales last year, he added. It had about 50 employees on its books, including Latinos who'd been there for over a decade. Some had mortgages, car loans and children in college.

But when what's called a "notice of inspection" arrived in the mail late last year, everything quickly changed.

St. Agnes couldn't find replacements with the same level of expertise by the deadline ICE imposed, so the leadership decided to stop making bread and begin clearing out the space.

"I wish I could list them all by name because they deserve it," Mitchelson said of the employees. "They built the company. I'm a white guy in America, I'm going to do fine. It sucks that these folks that busted their ass to build this company."

Former CEO Dan McGleno said employees were on the payroll and paid income taxes. Some were delivery drivers who'd cleared Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport security and were set to work the Super Bowl.

"We as people running the bakery are put in a position where we're supposed to know the difference between these things and it's really quite silly," McGleno said. "That we're going to be able to get it to a detail when the government can't even decide on what's legitimate and what's not."

'Gets tricky really, really quickly'

Mike Mitchelson stands for a portrait.
Former St. Agnes Baking Co. operations manager Mike Mitchelson stands for a portrait in the empty office that used to belong to the bakery.
Evan Frost | MPR News

The federal government dictates that every business keeps valid I-9 forms on employees. The three-page document, although brief, is complex, according to experts in the field of employment-based immigration law.

One of the pages is dedicated to explaining which documents are acceptable. They include a passport, which is a clear proof of citizenship, but also employment authorization cards for non-immigrant residents, who are given permission to work under various programs.

The onus to verify the I-9 is on the employer, but a minor mistake by the employee, like checking the wrong box, could result in a violation.

Some unauthorized workers use invalid Social Security numbers, a more substantive violation, but the initial I-9 process doesn't always catch that. Unless the business is instituting electronic verification, which isn't required, there is no way to know.

Additionally, each one of those employment authorization cards has different validity periods. Some of the non-immigrant statuses have continuing authorization, others don't.

"It gets tricky really, really quickly," said Sarah Peterson, an immigration attorney in Minneapolis. "It'll be interesting to see how this increase under the administration of the audits will actually play out in terms of employer sanctions and employer fines."

The George W. Bush administration concentrated its efforts on workplace raids, while the Obama administration focused on the paper trail aspect of enforcing the I-9 rules.

The Trump administration appears to be using a combination of the two, according to experts.

One of the largest immigration crackdowns under the Obama administration to date took place in the Twin Cities in 2009, when 1,200 janitors were fired in what was dubbed a "quiet raid" at the time.

Journalist Jeffrey Kaye explored the effects of the operation targeting janitors, looking specifically at how the employees and their families fared, in "Deeper in the Shadows." The report found worksite enforcement hasn't historically led to deportation and that most immigrants were able to find new jobs with lower incomes.

A two-phase operation this year that served more than 5,200 businesses around the country resulted in 100 arrests. In the region including Minnesota, Iowa, Nebraska, the Dakotas, Kansas and Missouri, ICE conducted 114 audits. There was one arrest as a result, according to ICE spokesperson Shawn Neudauer.

Neudauer declined to release Minnesota-specific statistics, noting that the offices are organized by region. He declined to provide information regarding the amount of fines that have been imposed and whether businesses were shuttered as a result of recent audits.

'You probably wouldn't tell'

The MPR News Freedom of Information Act request did not include the amounts fined. Repeated requests for additional information were unsuccessful.

Neudauer said the audits themselves don't spark investigations. But ICE could launch an investigation if the agency finds egregious violations or a pattern of intent to deceive.

"The focus is not on arresting an alien, it's on measuring and gaining compliance with the applicable hiring laws, thereby creating a deterrent to illegal immigration by removing one of the main reasons for illegal border crossings — finding jobs and working illegally," Neudauer said in a statement.

Investigations are focused "on leveling the playing field for all U.S. businesses and preventing abuse of those who can be potentially trafficked as a result."

Last week, however, federal investigators conducted one of their largest operations. At least 130 immigrants living here illegally, along with 17 managers and employers, were arrested during a multi-state raid that targeted businesses in Minnesota, Nebraska and Nevada for allegedly mistreating unauthorized immigrants in the U.S.

According to ICE, eight were taken into custody in Minnesota. Three were released with notices to appear before a federal judge.

ICE may be focusing on the big violators when it comes to issuing fines and arrests. But Peterson, the immigration attorney, suspects some of the businesses who've received warning notices are audited again within a few months.

No arrests resulted from the January audit at St. Agnes Baking, according to the company, and none of the workers have been deported. McGleno declined to make the former employees available for interviews, but he said they still keep in touch. They worked together for years, and he said he did not know they were unauthorized. One was a supervisor who made around $60,000 a year.

"If you were in the country illegally, you probably wouldn't tell someone who's your employer," McGleno said. "You probably wouldn't even tell someone who's your employer who's a friend."

St. Agnes employees stuck around until the last day of production, the busiest ever. After an 80-hour week, McGleno remembered a moment that has stuck with him.

"I was sitting with one of the guys in the break room and he just said the biggest mistake that he made was he got too comfortable; as a Mexican he should've known better," McGleno recalled. "And boy, that just blew me away."