Thursday, September 18, 2008

ICE raids Bay Area restaurant chain, finds workers living in squalor (Contra Costa Times)

ICE raids Bay Area restaurant chain, finds workers living in squalor

By Matt O'Brien
Contra Costa Times
Article Launched: 09/18/2008 06:38:01 PM PDT

HERCULES — The big house on Park Street looked pristine from the outside, with its elegant cornices and a white picket fence. Inside, it was a cramped, squalid place used to stash an illegal workforce from China, Indonesia, Guatemala and Singapore, federal agents said Thursday.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents raided the Hercules house, others like it and two Bay Area restaurants on Wednesday morning, arresting 21 undocumented immigrants who worked for a Chinese restaurant chain.

They came close to searching a third restaurant, the Empire Buffet at the San Pablo Towne Center off of Interstate 80, but halted their operation because the restaurant never opened on Wednesday morning.

The East Bay restaurant remains under scrutiny, said ICE spokeswoman Virginia Kice, adding that agents "apparently arrested all the employees" before it could open.

ICE said the workers were shuttled from the Hercules house to the San Pablo restaurant every morning just before 10 a.m. The agents intercepted them Wednesday, entering the six-year-old home where they say floors and walls were covered with plastic tarp.

At least 20 people and probably more lived inside the five-bedroom house, some in converted living rooms and garages that were divided by makeshift walls. Kice said they found hot plates, rice cookers and camp-style stoves inside, apparently because residents were prohibited access to kitchen appliances.

"They put plastic over the stovetop and weighted it down with phone books and disabled the stove," Kice said.

The investigation into the chain of Chinese restaurants in San Pablo, Vallejo and Vacaville stretches back to May 2006, when Vacaville residents complained to local police of suspicious activity at a two-story house.

"Neighbors observed ... residents of Chinese nationality being pick(ed) up early in the morning from the residence and not returning until late at night," says an affidavit that ICE used to raid the homes this week. "Neighbors speculated that the owner of the residence was operating a 'sweat shop' with illegal aliens."

Vacaville police visited the house in 2006, finding 21 mattresses spread across multiple rooms. Electricity was supplied to the garages using extension cords. Officers estimated that 30 people lived in the home.

In 2007, ICE agents began investigating the family that owned the home and a chain of restaurants, including King's Buffet in Vacaville, Empire Buffet in Vallejo and the same-named restaurant in San Pablo.

ICE said it had evidence that Vacaville residents Zhen Lin and Rui Yang Lin used the Vacaville home as a "stash house ... to conceal, harbor and shield undocumented aliens" who worked at the restaurants. Another suspect, Bi Xia Ni, was using a large home she owned in a Vallejo cul-de-sac to do the same, ICE said.

The workers arrested Wednesday are from six countries — nine are from China, five from Mexico, three from Guatemala, two from Indonesia, and one each from Singapore and Honduras. They are all accused of being in the country illegally and most remain in jail awaiting deportation proceedings.

ICE said it is investigating whether the owners will be charged with any hiring or harboring violations. The affidavit said some employees were paid in cash and employers did not report their wage information to the state. Kice said the federal Department of Labor also began interviewing workers Wednesday.

ICE's last major work site raid in the region happened in early May, when agents raided 11 branches of the San Ramon-based El Balazo taqueria chain and arrested 63 workers. The owners of El Balazo have not been charged with any crimes but ICE has said they are under investigation.

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