- Associated Press - Sunday, March 8, 2015

WICHITA, Kan. (AP) - When a suburban Kansas City couple bought two Clarion hotels, they systematically replaced lawfully employed workers with immigrants not authorized to work in the United States, cutting labor costs by 40 percent.

Not only were the illegal workers paid a lower wage, but the owners of the hotels - one in Overland Park, Kansas, and the other in Kansas City, Missouri - also did not pay the employer’s share of Social Security. They didn’t pay worker’s compensation, unemployment insurance and other employee benefits, or withhold federal or state income taxes from paychecks, court documents show.

Hotel owner Munir Ahmad Chaudary will be sentenced Monday in a federal case that highlights the U.S. Justice Department’s prosecutorial shift away from workplace immigration raids to targeting employers who knowingly hire people who are not in the U.S. legally to gain an unfair competitive advantage.

U.S. Attorney Barry Grissom said the case should “serve as an alarm” that there are consequences to such conduct. Not only will those employers lose their property, but their liberty, he said.

On the day their trial was set to begin in July, the couple pleaded guilty to conspiracy to encourage immigrants to reside unlawfully in the United States. Rhonda R. Bridge was sentenced last month to 21 months imprisonment. The government is seeking a 27 months for Chaudary at his hearing in U.S. District Court in Kansas City, Kansas.

The government has also seized their hotels, worth an estimated $5 million to $6 million total, along with their bank accounts under forfeiture laws.

Defense attorney Branden Bell urged the court to spare Chaudary from prison, portraying the Pakistani immigrant in a court filing Thursday as a “tireless worker and a terrible boss.”

“He came to America with lots of ambition and little money, and set out to build a life for himself,” Bell wrote. “Creating small businesses with nothing more than his sweat, he went from owning a small pizza restaurant to two hotels. These businesses were his life’s work; the singular endeavor that he poured his heart and labor into. Now they are gone; he has nothing.”

Bell also argued his client’s crime was not violent, and that employing people who are not in the U.S. legally is common.

The shift in enforcement priorities in immigration-related cases is based on the experience the Justice Department had a decade ago, when the government conducted large workplace roundups of people who are not in the U.S. legally, most notably at meatpacking plants in the Midwest, Grissom said. Those raids ripped apart immigrant families, often leaving behind children who came home from school to find their parents gone.

“It wasn’t a very humane way to address this problem, and it wasn’t a very efficient way to address this problem,” Grissom said.

By targeting unscrupulous employers, the Justice Department says it’s aiming to remove the incentive for immigrants who are not authorized to work in the United States to come to the region seeking jobs.

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