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LITTLE ROCK, Ark. - Federal agents raided Wal-Mart's headquarters and 60 of its stores across the nation Thursday, arresting more than 300 illegal workers as part of an investigation known as "Operation Rollback." Federal law enforcement sources told the Associated Press that evidence including recordings indicates that Wal-Mart had direct knowledge of the immigration violations, which involve its cleaning contractors at stores across the country.
Although the workers were members of cleaning crews hired by outside contractors, federal law enforcement officials who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity said Wal-Mart knew of the violations. They cited recordings of meetings and conversations among Wal-Mart executives, managers and contractors.
Wal-Mart spokeswoman Mona Williams told the AP, "We have seen no evidence of this from the INS, and, if that turns out to be true, we will cooperate fully with law enforcement officials."
The workers were arrested as they finished their night shifts at Wal-Mart stores in 21 states. Agents also hauled away several boxes of documents from an executive's office at Wal-Mart headquarters in Bentonville. Top Wal-Mart officials learned of the sweep when store managers began calling headquarters for guidance in dealing with the raids, according to the AP report.
An employer can face civil and criminal penalties for knowingly hiring illegal immigrants or failing to comply with certain employee recordkeeping regulations.
Wal-Mart Stores has about 1.1 million employees in the United States, and it uses more than 100 third-party contractors to clean more than 700 stores nationwide, Williams said.
"We require each of these contractors to use only legal workers," she said.
The law enforcement sources said the investigation grew out of earlier probes of Wal-Mart cleaning crew contractors in 1998 and 2001.
All the arrested workers were in the country illegally, said Garrison Courtney, a spokesman with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. They were detained at local immigration offices. Those who had no criminal record were released with instructions to appear before immigration judges.
Many of the workers said they were Eastern European and a few were of other ethnicities, Courtney said.