HOUSTON — A Houston tortilla company forfeited $1 million Friday following a felony conviction for conspiracy to induce and encourage unlawful immigration through a pattern and practice of hiring and employing illegal aliens at the tortilla factory.
This sentence was announced by Acting U.S. Attorney Abe Martinez, Southern District of Texas, and Special Agent in Charge Mark Dawson of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) in Houston.
The three owners of La Espiga De Oro (Espiga) — Alfredo Sosa Lira, 72, his wife Lydia Botello-Lira, 68, their daughter Lydia Lira, 25 — and night manager Roberto Guerra, 45, all of Houston, pleaded guilty to misdemeanor violations associated with their continued employment of illegal aliens between October 2011 and August 2015.
“Employers who knowingly hire immigrants with fraudulent or suspect documents face serious consequences under the law,” said Martinez. “This company violated the law by allowing more than half of its employees to work as undocumented immigrants. The $1 million forfeiture will help pay for the investigation and assist immigration authorities in their continued pursuit of employers who engage in similar conduct. Enforcement of our immigration laws is serious business and employers must only hire those with legitimate documentation to demonstrate they are legally in the United States.”
Espiga has been in operation since 1977 and is located on the 1200 block of 15th Street in the Heights in Houston. The company manufactures tortillas for restaurants and businesses throughout Texas, Louisiana and Colorado.
A series of complaints about the company’s hiring practices between 2008 and 2010 led to the HSI investigation. An undercover operation later led to evidence that the company knowingly hired illegal aliens. In some instances, the company knew that these aliens used fraudulent documents to secure employment. The illegal aliens were from Mexico, Guatemala and El Salvador.
HSI executed a search warrant at the company on Aug. 4, 2015, and 10 illegal aliens were discovered working. Evidence uncovered during this investigation also demonstrated that 55 percent of Espiga employees were not authorized by law to work at the factory. One long-term employee that the company knew to be illegally employed was injured on the job and received a settlement under her true name after using an alias for more than six years. The company owners and managers continued to employ this alien knowing that she was illegally in the United States.
Following execution of the search warrant, the company was charged by criminal complaint and began cooperating with HSI and the U.S. Attorney’s Office to revise its hiring practices and implement new procedures to prevent future violations of federal law.
The company paid $1 million, which represents an amount that at least equals the value of property used to facilitate the crime, the value of wages paid to the unauthorized work force, and the value of products manufactured and services provided by the illegal workforce during the conspiracy. This money will go directly to immigration authorities to assist them with their future enforcement efforts.
U.S. District Judge Gray Miller accepted the company’s plea as well as that of the owners/manager. Alfredo Lira, Botello-Lira, Lydia Lira and Guerra were sentenced to time served — the 18 months they were forced to serve on court-imposed supervised release during the course of this prosecution. The company itself will be on probation for a term of 12 months.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) also took actions against Espiga for labor-related violations. OSHA settled with Espiga on Aug. 23, 2016, with Espiga paying $85,360; Espiga must also correct the hazards that OSHA had identified. There are also provisions in that agreement requiring Espiga to protect the employees while the hazards are being addressed.
Assistant U.S. Attorneys Julie Searle and Edward Gallagher, Southern District of Texas, prosecuted this case.