ICE investigation at Chipotle Mexican Grill escalates

Chipotle Mexican Grill, our homegrown burrito chain, is about to make the big leagues: It will replace Novell in the S&P 500 sometime soon. But amid last week's celebrations over that milestone came less happy news: The company is now under criminal investigation by the U.S. government, which is trying to determine whether the growing enterprise knowingly hired illegal immigrants.

Chipotle has faced audits by the Immigrations and Customs Enforcement agency in Minnesota and Washington, D.C.; the company fired several employees who were unable to provide proof of permission to work in the U.S. And on April 13, the U.S. Attorney's Office wrote the chain seeking documents related to the original hiring, thus initiating a criminal investigation.

For its part, Chipotle says it will continue to cooperate with the federal agencies as they do their work. It's also making updates to its I-9 verification practices in the wake of the immigration audits.

"What happened in Minnesota was a very eye-opening experience for us," explains Chris Arnold, director of public relations for the company. "On the heels of that, we've put in place a number of improvements to our immigration audit procedures."

The law requires the company to have an I-9 on file for each employee, and the company has always had two levels of verification for those documents, he says. But the corporation has now installed E-Verify, a government-run electronic database used to check work eligibility for new hires nationwide, and will move to an electronic I-9, which makes verification easier. And experts will provide the safety check on the system.

"I-9 specialists will do our second level of reviews," Arnold notes.

Chipotle, which has more than a thousand stores, won't disclose which restaurants the criminal investigation is targeting, or how wide-ranging the probe is.

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