Sunday, September 21, 2008

Illegal workers given permits (Honolulu Advertiser)

Illegal workers given permits
7 arrested Mexicans free to find jobs after agreeing to aid probe

By Jim Dooley
Advertiser Staff Writer

Last week, Floro Mendez-Sanchez, an admitted illegal immigrant from Mexico, was locked away in Honolulu's Federal Detention Center, facing up to six months in prison and deportation for using false identity papers to work as a farm laborer in Waipahu.

This week, Mendez-Sanchez, 24, is out of jail, living at the YMCA and holder of a temporary work permit issued by the federal government that allows him to legally look for a new job.

Mendez-Sanchez and six others still face prison time and deportation, but because they pleaded guilty to immigration crimes and agreed to cooperate in an ongoing federal investigation of the company that employed them, they have temporary liberty and permission to enter Hawai'i's workforce.

It's part of what U.S. Magistrate Judge Barry Kurren, who has approved a handful of the plea deals, said in court Wednesday is an "extraordinary" new development for law enforcement agencies targeting companies and middlemen that profit from the employment of illegal aliens in the Islands.

Kurren said he checked with judicial colleagues on the Mainland who said they'd never heard of such plea deals.

"Is this kind of thing happening elsewhere in the country?" Kurren asked U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent Amy Garon.

"Not that I'm aware of," Garon answered.

But some lawyers specializing in immigration law say the arrangements, while new here, are part of a national campaign by the federal government to criminally prosecute and imprison illegal aliens rather than simply deport them.

They point to federal raids and mass arrests of illegal immigrants in Iowa in May and Mississippi in August as evidence of the new trend.

In Iowa, nearly 400 illegal workers at a meatpacking plant were arrested and almost 300 were criminally prosecuted in group trials at a temporary courtroom erected in a nearby fairground.

In Mississippi, some 600 workers were arrested but only eight were criminally charged. The rest were subjected to deportation proceedings.

Here, 43 Mexican nationals working at The Farms Inc. were arrested and 23 of them were each indicted on three counts apiece of using bogus identity documents to work there. One case was subsequently dismissed.

Of the remaining 22, seven have so far pleaded guilty, agreed to cooperate in a continuing investigation and been released pending sentencing dates in December and January.

As part of their agreements, the defendants are forbidden to have any contact with The Farms or its current employees.

Dax Deason, a Texas attorney who specializes in immigration law and who represents The Farms and its chief executive, Larry Jefts, declined to comment on the criminal cases or on the continuing federal investigation.

No charges have been filed against the company or Jefts.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Tracy Hino is prosecuting the cases and said last week that "cooperation by defendants is rare in these cases."

He stressed that none of the men who have been released have prior criminal records.

"The guys we're letting out don't have that kind of background. There's no reason to believe that they pose a danger to the community or that they pose a flight risk," he said.

In some past cases, illegal immigrants have been held as "material witnesses" so that they are available to testify in criminal proceedings here, Hino noted.

Under the new plea agreements, the defendants "receive a benefit" of temporary release from custody and work permits for agreeing to cooperate, he said.

All have agreed to be deported when the criminal cases are resolved here, Hino sated.

He said he's not sure how the released defendants will fare in the community but they will be supervised by the Pretrial Services Office of the federal judiciary and by agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Few speak much English and most are poorly educated.

Mendez-Sanchez completed only "two years of schooling," said his lawyer, Brandon Flores.

Another defendant who has been released, Lorenzo Sanchez-Lucas, told Kurren through an interpreter last week that he is 22 years old and completed "three years of schooling."

When Kurren asked questions to determine if he understood the court proceedings, Lucas answered at one point, "I just want them to put me at liberty."

His lawyer, Pamela Tamashiro, told Kurren, "Trying to explain the judicial system, the burden of proof, it's a lot to absorb."

How the men will fare when "put at liberty" is unknown.

"It's not only the language barrier but also the education barrier that he has to overcome" in looking for a job and a place to stay while he is free, Flores said.

Initial housing was found for some of the defendants at either the Central YMCA or the Atkinson YMCA. One costs $34 per night and the other $40.

Hino acknowledged that if they find jobs paying the minimum wage, that won't be enough to cover their housing and daily expenses if they're paying $34-$40 a night just for a room.

The government did get past paychecks owed to them by the Farms, but lawyers involved in the case say those payments ranged from $200 to $1,200.

That money won't last long, particularly if the defendants stay beyond their December and January sentencing dates, lawyers said.

"Those dates might be postponed while the investigation continues," Flores said. "It's conceivable that they could be here for quite a while."

Gary Singh, court-appointed attorney for another of the defendants, Juan De Ramona Cantor, said, "It's going to be tough for them to find jobs, particularly with the way the economy is going.

"I'm trying to talk to as many people as I know to try to find my client work. I talked to people that do yard work but they told me things are very slow."

Singh said his client is in his mid-20s and has two children at home in Mexico.

"He just came here trying to make a buck, to earn money to support his family," Singh said.

All the defendants face sentences of up to six months in prison for their guilty pleas.

How much time, if any, they will serve before they are deported home is unknown. They will get credit for about a month of detention each served after the criminal charges were filed against them.

All the defendants told agents they sneaked across the Mexican border into the United States, sometimes paying more than $1,000 to smugglers, then bought phony green cards and Social Security numbers readily available from vendors in Fresno, Stockton and other California cities for $40 to $150.

The prosecutions and continuing investigation come as the federal government has stepped up efforts to halt the employment of undocumented workers around the country.

Locally, Pacific Resources Partnership, which represents construction companies and the Hawaii Carpenters Union, has been pushing for increased enforcement and recently launched an advertising campaign on the subject of illegal immigrant labor.

Kyle Chock, PRP executive director, said Friday his organization supports the recent criminal cases.

"I'd like to believe that what they're doing is in the best interest of local labor," Chock said.

As for the federal government's decision to allow at least seven illegal immigrants to temporarily enter Hawai'i's workforce, Chock said, "I trust what law enforcement has done so far."

Mendez-Sanchez and the others "are in the same boat with other local workers now," Chock said.

"I think its going to be tough finding jobs," he said.

1 comment:

kris said...

this is the biggest bunch of crap I have heard, americans are losing jobs on the islands and then they turn them lose to steal the jobs from us. I live on maui and welcome every raid. my wife works at a resturant here and they send the mexicans home for a few days when ICE is here and everyone esle is expected to pick up the slack very unamerican. I welcome all immigrants who come here legally that is how our nation was built. how do they get on the plane? pretty lax enforcement.