Hawaii: farmworkers released in plea deal

Seven agricultural workers arrested in a July 7 ICE raid at an apartment building in Waipahu, Hawai’i, have pleaded guilty to criminal charges for using false identity documents to gain employment and have agreed to cooperate in a continuing investigation. In return, all seven have been released with work authorization pending sentencing dates scheduled for December and January. “Those dates might be postponed while the investigation continues,” said Brandon Flores, an attorney for one of the defendants. “It’s conceivable that they could be here for quite a while.”

Assistant US Attorney Tracy Hino, who is prosecuting the cases, explained that under the terms of the plea agreements, the defendants “receive a benefit” of temporary release from custody and work permits for agreeing to cooperate. When sentenced they will get credit for about a month of time already served in federal detention. All have agreed to be deported when their criminal cases are resolved, Hino said. As part of their plea agreements, the defendants are forbidden to have any contact with their former employer—The Farms Inc.—or its current employees. Hino said the defendants will be supervised by the Pretrial Services Office of the federal judiciary and by ICE agents.

Initial housing was found for several of the workers at local YMCA facilities. Hino acknowledged that if they find jobs paying the minimum wage, that won’t be enough to cover their housing and daily expenses. The government did get past paychecks owed to them by the Farms; lawyers involved in the case say those payments ranged from $200 to $1,200.

The seven men were among 43 Mexican workers employed by The Farms Inc. who were arrested in the July 7 raid; 23 were indicted on three counts each of using false identity documents to obtain their jobs. One of the criminal cases was subsequently dismissed. The other 15 cases are pending.

US Magistrate Judge Barry Kurren, who has approved a handful of the plea deals, called them an “extraordinary” new development. 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 ICE agent Amy Garon. “Not that I’m aware of,” Garon answered.

Dax Deason, a Texas attorney who is representing 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. All the defendants told agents they came across the Mexican border into the US without permission, sometimes paying more than $1,000 to smugglers, then bought phony green cards and Social Security numbers from vendors in Fresno, Stockton and other California cities for $40 to $150. (Honolulu Advertiser, Sept. 21)

From Immigration News Briefs, Oct. 5

See our last post on the politics of immigration and the struggle in Hawaii.