Cody Duty / AP
Federal agents prepare to enter a business during a raid, Thursday, Jan. 30, 2014, in southwest Houston. The raid was part of a crackdown on an alleged human smuggling ring operating in Texas and other states.
HOUSTON — Two Houston employment agencies that allegedly recruited immigrants living in the U.S. illegally to be cheap labor for restaurants in at least seven states were shut down Thursday after a series of arrests, federal authorities said.
The Hong Li and the Tai Shan employment agencies were competitors that both provided workers, mostly from Mexico and Central America, to Chinese restaurants in Texas, Louisiana, Maine and other states, said Brian M. Moskowitz, special agent in charge of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's Homeland Security Investigations.
"The agencies recruited and solicited the workers and sought the business of these restaurants to feed their demand for cheap labor," Moskowitz said.
According to the indictments, the two agencies used Chinese language newspapers and Internet sites to solicit the restaurants and "offer Hispanic unauthorized alien workers, commonly referred to in this context as 'amigos,' to them."
Officials estimate that in the 10 years the agencies operated, they supplied restaurants with hundreds of workers.
"The entire business model rested on the shoulders of illegal workers," Moskowitz said.
The agencies are also accused of housing the immigrants in often cramped homes and apartments and transporting them to restaurants in various states as part of services to their clients.
"There is no doubt (the workers) were complicit, knew what was going on. But they were also exploited. They paid them below minimum wage, worked them 12 hours a day, six days a week, did not allow them to take gratuities and sometimes housed them in substandard facilities," Moskowitz said.
Authorities say 32 people were charged in two separate indictments. Each indictment had 16 people from each employment agency. The indictments — handed down in November and unsealed Thursday — came after a more than three-year investigation by ICE agents.
Nine of the 32 people indicted face a conspiracy charge under the federal Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, known as RICO. The others face charges of conspiracy to transport and harbor aliens, Moskowitz said.
Most of the individuals indicted are immigrants from China legally living in the U.S., Moskowitz said.
The U.S. Attorney's Office in Beaumont will be handling the prosecution because several of the restaurants accused of being supplied with workers were located in that area of southeast Texas.
Moskowitz said the agencies used the same business model and had offices next to each other in southwest Houston and sometimes helped each other. Investigators are still trying to determine if there is a family connection between the two groups.
Agents with ICE and other law enforcement agencies on Thursday arrested 21 of those indicted. During the arrests, agents also took into custody nine people who are living in the country illegally.
Court records did not list attorneys for those who were arrested Thursday.
— The Associated Press