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Longtime bakery, Con Pane, shuts down following ICE audit of workers

Shown here is the bakery's Almost Grilled Cheese, which featured triple cream French brie and crumbled Gorgonzola cheese on oven-toasted rosemary olive oil bread. It regularly offered more than 20 varieties of handmade artisan bread.
(The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Immigration authorities find that many of the workers at the Liberty Station business, were unauthorized

Con Pane Rustic Breads and Cafe, a popular, longtime Point Loma business, announced Wednesday that it was closing following a federal immigration audit that the owner says found a number of employees to be unauthorized workers.

In a Facebook post late in the day, the restaurant ownership called the closure a “heartbreaking loss,” but said it had no other choice given the large number of workers who were affected. The retail and wholesale business, which first opened in 1999 on Rosecrans and Canon streets and a decade later moved to Liberty Station, supplies bread to a number of San Diego restaurants.

“We have been subject to an I-9 audit by immigration authorities (DHS/ICE/INS) which has resulted in a notice of suspect documents,"Con Pane said in a Facebook post to its followers. “Although we require all workers to provide us with government specified documentation evidencing their employment eligibility, a number of our employees have been, without our knowledge, determined to be unauthorized workers. The discovery of a large number of unauthorized workers has so disrupted operations we have had no choice but to close.”

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) said Thursday it does not confirm audits of specific businesses.

“We continue to expect employers and state officials to comply with federal law, established by the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) of 1986, which requires employers to verify the identity and work eligibility of all individuals they hire,” said ICE spokeswoman Lauren Mack. “ICE is the federal agency responsible for enforcing these laws, which were set up to protect jobs for U.S. citizens and others who are lawfully employed, and to eliminate unfair competitive advantages for companies that hire an illegal workforce.”

Con Pane notified customers via Facebook that it was closing its cafe as of Wednesday and would cease wholesale deliveries on Friday. It is unknown how many employees were found to be illegally working there, and owner Catherine Perez did not respond to an email seeking comment.

On its website, ICE explains that it uses what are known as “I-9 audits” and civil fines to ensure compliance with laws governing the hiring of workers. Since the mid-1980s, potential hires have been required to submit three forms of identification and certify eligibility on what is known as a Form I-9. It is up to the employer to accept or reject those documents.

Employers, states ICE, are given advanced notice of an audit of their hiring records, after which businesses have three days to provide their I-9 forms. After that the agency conducts an inspection, according to the ICE website.

“If employers are not in compliance with the law, an I-9 inspection of their business will likely result in civil fines and could lay the groundwork for criminal prosecution, if they are knowingly violating the law,” ICE states.

Mack said that so far this fiscal year, which began Oct. 1, 2019, ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations arm has initiated 35 audits at local businesses in San Diego county. All are in various phases of the process. During the previous fiscal year, which ended Sept. 30 of last year, there were 264 such audits.

Restaurateur David Spatafore, who had regularly used Con Pane bread for his Parisian-style bistro, Little Frenchie, in Coronado, said he was shocked by the news of the bakery closing.

“I was so bummed,” said Spatafore, whose company, Bluebridge Hospitality, operates a number of restaurants, as well as Liberty Public Market. “The raisin hazelnut bread, her cinnamon rolls, her sandwiches, everything she (owner Catherine Perez) does, from retail to her wholesale operation, is great and she’s going to be missed as a customer and neighbor at Liberty Station.”

Speaking to the restaurant hiring process, Spatafore said restaurateurs do the best they can to verify that their workers have legal documentation.

“We all go through the process of filling out an I-9 and verifying the documents but we’re not a sanctioned agency to where we can completely 100 percent know if everything is perfect,” he said.

One of the more high-profile instances of a San Diego restaurant facing criminal prosecution for the hiring of unauthorized workers was the French Gourmet in Pacific Beach, which was raided in 2008 by ICE agents. Authorities arrested 18 workers that day, and the owner ultimately was convicted of a misdemeanor and was fined $396,000.

While there is a government web-based program known as E-Verify that employers can use to confirm whether their workers can legally work in the U.S., many restaurants do not use it.

Updates:

10:40 AM, Jan. 16, 2020: This story was updated Thursday morning with a statement from Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

12:12 PM, Jan. 16, 2020: This story was updated to include latest statistics on ICE audits in San Diego County.


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