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Monday, June 19, 2006

By Taipei Times.

GETTING THERE: Some 6,000 Hispanics had been funnelled through Asian restaurants in a scheme that put them into virtual slavery, a prosecutor said

Monday, Jun 19, 2006,Page 6

Advertising A case of human smuggling that began with two men walking away from a restaurant in Grand Forks, North Dakota, has led authorities to thousands of illegal immigrant workers slaving in Asian restaurants across the Midwest, a prosecutor says.
"This whole case started with two Mexican guys who walked away from the restaurant in Grand Forks -- or were fired -- and were found walking along a road outside Grand Forks in a thunderstorm,'' Assistant US Attorney Nick Chase said.

That was in August 2004. The two Mexican men told Immigration and Customs agents they had been working more than 70 hours a week for less than US$2 an hour at the Buffet House, a Chinese restaurant in Grand Forks. They had been living with eight other restaurant employees in a small apartment a block from the restaurant.

US federal officials said they uncovered a human smuggling racket, which from 2000 to early last year had shipped 6,000 illegal immigrants to restaurants in North Dakota, Minnesota and other states.

Ya Cao, of McKinney, Texas, was sentenced on Wednesday in Fargo to 21 months in prison for her role in the scheme. She was the last of eight people who ran the pipeline smuggling humans into virtual slavery, Chase said.

All the workers were Hispanic illegal immigrants, he said.

In sentencing Cao, US District Judge Ralph Erickson said the scheme was an especially "destructive conspiracy" that amounted to modern-day "slave labor" and treated the illegal immigrant workers "like animals."

Shan Wei Yu, also of McKinney, was sentenced by Erickson in December to nine years in prison.

Lee Finstad, a Grand Forks attorney who defended Cao, sought a lesser sentence, saying she had a clean record and had cooperated with authorities.

Yu, through his company, Great Texas Employment Agency, took advantage of Cao after she came to the US to seek political asylum, Finstad said.

Finstad asked Erickson to delay the start of Cao's sentence because her husband and son recently received permission to leave China for the US.

Erickson said Cao could report on Aug. 1 to a prison close to where her family decides to live.

Six of the illegal immigrant employees found working in the Buffet House in Grand Forks were deported once their illegal status was determined. Several cooperated in the investigation.

Owners Yun Di Lu and Hong Peng were sentenced last year in Grand Forks to four months in prison; Peng was deported to China, Lu still is seeking asylum in the US. The restaurant was closed but reopened months ago under new ownership.

Authorities said restaurant owners paid US$450 to get a cheap employee who was run up through the pipeline, probably from Texas or California.

Cellphone calls connected Yu's employment agency to Asian restaurants around the Midwest.

Restaurant owners deducted the US$450, as well as rent money for crowded apartments and meal money, from the paychecks of the illegal employees, authorities said. The owners did not deduct federal income tax or Social Security payments from the pay of the overworked illegal immigrant workers.

The case involved restaurants in Grand Forks, Devils Lake, Fargo, Bismarck and Minot, as well as Aberdeen, South Dakota, the Minneapolis area and Duluth, and in several other Midwest states.

"It appeared it was really kind of an assessment of supply and demand at its most sinister level," Chase said. "The head of this conspiracy basically realized there was a big market in restaurants he knew of that needed illegal workers because they were cheap."

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