Raids Target Cleaning, Maintenance Workers

The federal government announces an immigration raid on a company that contracts cleaning and grounds maintenance services for the hospitality industry. Agents in 20 states have picked up hundreds of workers. Three company executives face criminal charges.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

Another federal immigration sweep has left dozens of popular chain restaurants across the country short of overnight cleaning crews. This morning, agents arrested nearly 200 immigrant workers who were in the country illegally. The government says the restaurants are not guilty, but they brought charges of fraud and tax crimes against a contracting company who supported the cleaning crews.

NPR's Jennifer Ludden reports.

JENNIFER LUDDEN: The scope of the raids is stunning. There were only a few major cities on the map where arrest did not take place. And the restaurants who lost workers include big names like the Hard Rock Cafe, House of Blues and Planet Hollywood. But it all began 20 months ago with a small event.

Ms. JULIE MEYERS (Head of Immigration and Customs Enforcement): This investigation started as a result of the arrest of a single alien by local law enforcement. In this case, the Grand Rapids' police department.

LUDDEN: Julie Myers heads Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE. She says the local police turned over that one immigrant to ICE, and from there, layers of crime unfolded. The immigrant told agents about a state employee in Michigan who was selling fake documents. She, in turn, pointed them toward a Michigan resort and spa, which then fingered its contract hiring company, Rosenbaum-Cunningham International, or RCI.

Even before immigration agents came calling, Myers says the Grand Traverse Resort and Spa had done the right thing.

Ms. MYERS: The resort had heard a little about ICE's previous enforcement actions. They had heard about the Wal-Mart case, and they don't want to be a Wal-Mart. So they actually asked RCI to provide Grand Traverse with some I-9 documents.

LUDDEN: RCI didn't have I-9s, the forms used to check employees' identity documents. All RCI's workers from Mexico, Central America and Haiti were paid in cash, off the books. So an RCI supervisor bought fake green cards. John Imhoff of the Internal Revenue Service says RCI's three main officers went to great lengths to conceal their illegal hiring scheme and used the scam to fund lavish lifestyles.

Mr. JOHN IMHOFF (Deputy Chief, Internal Revenue Service): It's all about the money. In this case, about $18 million in federal employment taxes that should have been withheld from employees wages and turned over the IRS to pay income, social security, Medicare taxes and unemployment taxes.

LUDDEN: RCI officials could be ordered to pay that back and also face up to 15 years in prison. A message at RCI offices in Florida said the company had ceased operations as of today. The immigrant workers are now in deportation proceedings, except for some, Myers says, were released on humanitarian grounds, such as being the sole caregiver for a child. Cecilia Munoz of the National Council for La Raza says it certainly make sense to target the worst abusers of illegal labor.

Ms. CECILIA MUNOZ (Vice President for Public Policy, National Council for La Raza): But it's also true. We're not going to solve our immigration problems by going after workers a hundred at a time, or by employers, you know, one or two at a time. This is an enormous problem. We have an economy that really depends on something which has to happen illegally, because there are no legal pathways for it. And that has change, and only Congress can change it.

LUDDEN: The secretary for Commerce and Homeland Security are expected to deliver that very message when they testify before Congress next week, just as the Senate may introduce its proposal to overhaul the immigration system.

Jennifer Ludden, NPR News, Washington.

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