It was just before 11 a.m. Thursday, but at a number of Asian restaurants in State College, the lunch rush never happened.
Instead, doors were locked, employees were questioned and some people were taken away by authorities.
Local, state and federal law enforcement detained at least 13 people in what U.S. Rep. Glenn Thompson said is an investigation of undocumented workers.
Bill Ebken, of the Frame Factory, works right in the middle of three of the restaurants known to be targeted — Hundred Degrees Hot Pot, My Thai and Fuji and Jade Garden, all off Westerly Parkway. He said he noticed something happening around 10:45-11 a.m., when cars began pulling up in front of the shopping center in areas marked for no parking. He quickly realized that they were law enforcement vehicles, about 25 of them, from various agencies.
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Ebken said he looked into the window at Hundred Degrees Hot Pot and saw employees being interviewed by officers.
“It’s disturbing,” Ebken said. “It’s a little scary to see all the policemen.”
It was not just police.
Investigators said the activity is part of a “targeted federal investigation,” but declined further comment. A U.S. Department of Homeland Security truck parked behind the State College Police Department. Officers from the state Attorney General’s Office joined them. A large van blocked visibility to the department’s sally port, the secured gateway where people in custody are brought in by police.
The limited access was a recurring theme Thursday as media sought information about the operation.
Officials referred all calls and inquiries to Nicole Navas at Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement division for comment. Police were not allowed to release information, but the borough’s administration also was muffled, having been told not to talk to the media.
Calls to State College Municipal Building, to speak with Mayor Elizabeth Goreham or Borough Council members, were likewise redirected to Homeland Security, which answered all questions with a short statement.
“In order not to compromise this ongoing criminal investigation, no additional details are available at his time,” Navas said in an email. “Residents should not be alarmed of any public safety concerns.”
A later inquiry received a similar response: Navas didn’t “have any additional public information to release at this time.”
Thompson, R-Howard Township, however, offered some clarification.
“I have been informed that today’s actions were carried out ... as part of an ongoing worksite investigation, looking into the hiring of unauthorized workers,” Thompson said in response to an inquiry from the Centre Daily Times. “Due to (the) ongoing nature of the investigation, the department was not able to share additional details, but they have agreed to keep me informed as this moves forward.”
Officers were noted on scene, or employees or ownership confirmed investigations, at these locations: Hundred Degrees Hot Pot, My Thai, and Fuji and Jade Garden, all on Westerly Parkway; Penang on North Atherton Street; College Buffet in the WalMart Plaza off North Atherton; China Wok at Northland Center; and China Dragon on South Allen Street.
There were unconfirmed reports of a police presence at Hunan Wok on East College Avenue and Chen’s Mongolian Buffet on South Atherton Street. Chen’s was closed Thursday evening.
The owners of My Thai and Chen’s did not return messages seeking comment, and numbers for the others were either disconnected or unavailable. Calls to a number of the businesses Thursday evening were unanswered. At several others, employees answered but said no managers or owners were available for comment.
Endi Lu owns Ni Hao in Northland Center and Bellefonte Wok. Neither of his restaurants was visited by the authorities, but family members own College Buffet and China Wok.
“It’s tough. There’s all kinds of rumors out there,” Lu said. “But you hope people know how you run your business. Everything we do is above board.”
Three male employees from College Buffet were detained for questioning, he said. Lu said the restaurant closed because those men were cooks, but the plan was to be up and running for Friday service.
“We got all the staff back,” he said. “That’s good.”
At least 13 people were seen taken from the various locations, secured with plastic ties at their wrists, placed in law enforcement vans and driven to the State College Municipal Building. Officers were seen carrying cardboard boxes marked “evidence.”
Lu said health inspectors visited College Buffet after federal and state officials had completed their tasks there.
Homeland Security has not issued any follow-up information on the reason for the raid, any potential charges or the identities of the detained individuals.