Danny's Family Car Wash accused of immigration fraud

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by Jacques Billeaud, Associated Press

Video report by Jill Galus

Posted on August 19, 2013 at 7:02 PM

Updated Wednesday, Aug 21 at 1:53 PM

PHOENIX (AP) -- A car-wash chain in metropolitan Phoenix and some of its managers were indicted on federal charges of rehiring workers who had been fired because their presence in the United States wasn't authorized.

The indictment against Danny's Family Car Wash and 14 employees says a federal audit of the company's work eligibility documents found that nearly half of the firm's 1,900-person workforce had presented insufficient or ineligible employment documents when they were hired. The company is accused of rehiring many of the terminated workers under new identities. Some managers are accused of assisting in getting the fired workers new identities and, in some cases, helping them get counterfeit documents.

The charges were unsealed Monday after a weekend raid of the company and its staffing-service provider HR Betty, which wasn't charged in the indictment. Federal immigration authorities who carried out the raid said the two-year investigation targets the owners, corporate leadership and management of the two businesses.

The bust by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement reflects a new approach by federal authorities in confronting employers suspected of hiring people who aren't legally in the country.

The approach focuses on auditing employment eligibility documents and making criminal cases against company officials. The focus on criminal cases was made after federal authorities concluded that some violators viewed the previous strategy of seeking only civil penalties as the cost of doing business. About a third of the 432 people arrested nationally since Oct. 1 in Immigration and Customs Enforcement's worksite enforcement cases were managers.

By contrast, the workplace raids by Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio's office have led to several hundred employees who are living in the U.S. illegally being arrested on criminal ID theft charges under a state law that aims to crack down on illegal hiring. The sheriff's office says it tries to build cases against employers, but only two businesses have had their business licenses suspended since the law took effect in 2008.

The car wash business and the 14 employees are charged with identity theft, immigration document fraud, conspiracy, making false statements on employment eligibility documents and engaging in a pattern and practice of hiring people whose presence in the country isn't authorized. Ten of the 14 employees pleaded not guilty to the charges against them.

Eric Falbe, general counsel for Danny's Family Car Wash, didn't immediately return messages left Monday. A woman who answered the phone at HR Betty declined to comment.

Adrian Fontes, an attorney for one of the managers charged in the indictment, said low-level managers were charged in the case and that no owners or corporate officers for the car wash company were indicted. One manager was identified in the indictment as the general manger of operations.

"The government has indicted a bunch of window washers in order to be able to get to the big guys because they probably don't have a good enough case on the big guys," Fontes said.

The raids resulted in another 30 people being taken into custody for immigration processing because they had past criminal convictions and prior orders to leave the country. Another 179 workers who had no criminal histories and no egregious immigration violations were released from custody within hours of being interviewed by federal authorities.

Immigrant rights advocates who rallied outside an Immigration and Customs Enforcement office near downtown Phoenix on Monday said the workers were only trying to work to support their families and called for the release of workers who are in custody in immigration cases.

Laura Porren said her husband, Juan Carlos Reynosa, remains in federal immigration custody after he was picked up in the raid. Her husband wasn't criminally charged. "What I'm asking from immigration (authorities) is to let him go," said Porren, crying as she made her plea. "He is not a criminal. All he wants to do is work for his family."

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