Blog Archive

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Immigration agents raid Otay Mesa bakery

By Morgan Lee
San Diego Union Tribune
October 15, 2010

The owner and three employees of a wholesale bakery in Otay Mesa have been charged with running an extensive scheme to hire and harbor illegal immigrants and evade detection by authorities. The charges were filed Thursday after federal agents swept through the business in an industrial zone near the Mexican border and arrested more than half of its staff.

In a criminal complaint, the U.S. Attorney’s Office accused the owner of S & S Bakery of altering workers’ delivery routes or keeping them at the factory to avoid detection by immigration officials. The owner also allegedly signed off on mismatched Social Security numbers for employees who fabricated, bought and sold fake government IDs, the complaint said.

One manager, himself an illegal immigrant, allegedly lived with 10 other illegal employees — some of them his colleagues, according to an anonymous informant cited in the complaint.

During a Wednesday raid on the bakery by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, 41 workers out of 73 on-site were identified as illegal immigrants.

The business, located about a quarter-mile from a U.S. Border Patrol office, distributed its goods to military bases, prisons, hospitals, schools and even a federal building where federal immigration officials and prosecutors work.

Business owner Jesse William Fadick, 64; managers Rigoberto Sarmiento-Machuca and Rogelio Machuca-Sarmiento, 35 and 46 respectively; and employee Abel Baizabal, 38, were charged with conspiracy to harbor illegal aliens, false representation of a Social Security number, fraud and misuse of entry documents.

One S & S Bakery employee, Norma Angelica Flores, faces criminal charges on accusations that she returned to the United States after being deported in 2005.

An attorney for Fadick, the only U.S. citizen among the defendants, said his client will plead not guilty.

“We recognize fully how serious the charges are,” said attorney Howard Frank. The accused are scheduled for arraignment today or Monday.

The case against S & S Bakery was rare in its scope and seriousness, said Marc Carlos, a longtime criminal defense attorney and partner at Bardsley & Carlos LLP in downtown San Diego.

“I’m in federal court every day, really that often, and this type of prosecution is rare. In all the cases I’ve seen come through federal court, there’s been nothing of this scale,” said Carlos. “It’s just not typical for a business to make a practice, a policy of subverting immigration laws.”

Carlos said the U.S. Attorney’s Office usually doesn’t press charges this serious unless it has solid material to back up the accusations.

“But the allegations are just that, and when it comes to bark versus bite, the evidence isn’t always what it seemed to be,” he said.

Carlos also said the bakery’s access to sensitive workplaces may have made authorities more concerned. ICE places a high priority on employers with access to “critical infrastructure” of national-security concern such as military bases and airports.

Of 44 employees arrested on lesser charges, some have been released pending their immigration hearings, said ICE spokeswoman Lauren Mack. Nineteen of those immigrants, all Mexican nationals, are expected to serve as material witnesses in the case.

Since President Barack Obama took office, immigration authorities have shifted from high-profile raids to audits of businesses to review their employee-verification documents. Still, ICE officials have said raids remain a crucial tool in criminal cases.

Within San Diego County, the criminal case against operators of the French Gourmet restaurant in Pacific Beach has attracted nationwide attention and sent a chill through the restaurant industry, a magnet for illegal labor.

In that case, the owner and a manager are accused of knowingly hiring undocumented workers and continuing to employ them after being told that the employees’ Social Security numbers were bogus. The defendants have asserted their innocence.

At least seven food manufacturing and distribution businesses are clustered in Otay Mesa, together employing more than 1,000 workers, according to an April study by the San Diego Association of Governments.

At S & S Bakery on Thursday evening, a man wearing a white smock and hat identified himself as one of several owners but refused to give his name. Asked if the business was still in operation, he said, “Yes, we’re doing the best we can.”

The investigation of the bakery began in September 2009 with a tip from a former employee who said manager Sarmiento-Machuca told him to obtain fraudulent work documents after wrongly assuming that he was an illegal immigrant.

In July of this year, ICE agents reviewed a wage report for 119 employees at the bakery business and found 54 who were not eligible to work in the United States.

Fadick allegedly told investigators during a post-arrest interview that he didn’t know he was employing illegal immigrants, even though several illegal workers at the business alleged that he knew their status. In addition, prosecutors said a paid informant recorded a conversation with Fadick in July during which they discussed altering delivery routes to avoid background checks for some staffers.

“But please don’t say anything, you know? I mean, I’m not supposed to know your situation,” prosecutors quoted Fadick saying.

Staff writer Janine Zúñiga contributed to this report.