The Port Arthur News
Federal agents arrested three Port Arthur residents Thursday on allegations of transporting and harboring undocumented citizens as part of an illegal employment conspiracy.
Jin Zhu Wang, 50, Li Qui Jang, 52, and Hua Zhu Dong, 45 — all of Port Arthur — were among 32 individuals charged with Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) conspiracy and conspiracy to “transport, harbor and encourage and induce aliens to reside in the United States,” according to a press release from the office of Malcolm Bales, United States Attorney for the Eastern District of Texas.
According to a 41-page indictment, the three individuals are said to have “encouraged, induced and caused” the harboring and employment of unauthorized workers at two local Chinese restaurants, Port Arthur’s King Buffet Chinese Restaurant and Grand Buffet in Nederland.
Federal agents conducted raids in 10 cities — seven of them in Texas — ranging from Sanger to Bastrop, La. As of 5 p.m. Thursday, 23 of the 32 indicted individuals had been apprehended, and Bales said he was confident that the remaining nine would be arrested imminently.
If convicted, they face up to 20 years for the RICO charge and a maximum of 10 years for the immigration conspiracy charge.
The 32 individuals are connected with two employment referral businesses based in Houston, both of whom are thought to have been operating for as many as 10 years, Bales said.
“Both enterprises provided an unfair and illegal competitive edge to those businesses,” Bales said at a press conference at his office, 350 Magnolia Street, Beaumont. “Numerous restaurants were willing to turn a blind eye and specifically look to hire illegal aliens with no intention of ever complying with American immigration laws.”
By way of commercial advertising in Chinese-language newspapers and business cards printed in both Chinese and Spanish, the Hong Li Job Agency and the Tai Shan Employment Agency supplied hundreds of illegal citizens to Chinese restaurants across Texas and Louisiana.
Both agencies then charged restaurant owners a fee that ranged from $300 to $630 for the transportation, housing and delivery of the illegal citizens, which was deducted from the workers’ monthly wages.
Brian Moskowitz, special agent in charge of Homeland Security Investigations in Houston, referred to the agencies’ operation as a “take-out and delivery service” — not of food, but of people.
“At its core, this is a case about money,” Moskowitz said. “Their business was built upon the systemic abuse of our nation’s immigration laws.”
The workers, primarily from Mexico and Central America, typically worked 72-hour weeks for a salary of between $1,000 and $2,000 per month. They were paid in cash and forbidden to keep tips or gratuities.
The restaurants also did not provide benefits such as health insurance, vacation or sick time, and workers never received the appropriate health examinations or food safety training. Because the workers were undocumented, owners were able to circumvent paying employment taxes.
Bales said that while the illegal citizens were no doubt complicit in the operation, it was fair to say that they were exploited.
“They obviously knew what they were getting into,” Bales said. “They had no intention of seeking legal status; they just wanted to work.
“But what else could they have done? Who are you going to complain to? If you complain, you’re gone.”
Additionally, the owners subjected their workers to cramped living quarters, either at the restaurant operator’s residence or other off-site residential locations. A residence located at 8624 Lamplighter Lane — one of four Port Arthur homes investigated by federal agents — revealed nine illegal citizens.
The house had been divided into makeshift apartments, Ed Silva, resident agent in charge with Homeland Security Investigations, said.
“Every little room had its own door and its own lock,” Silva said.
Bales said that several of the suspects are set to appear in court at the Jefferson County Courthouse in Beaumont on Friday.
The undocumented workers are currently being processed by Homeland Security Investigations to determine if any have criminal records. Some risk prosecution due to previous deportation, Bales said.