SAN DIEGO — The president of a San Diego-area car wash and its business manager are facing federal charges following a seven-month investigation into the company's hiring practices by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI).
A criminal complaint filed in federal court Wednesday charges Ju Hea Kim, 54, president and CEO of Betty's Hand Car Wash, and Sun Jae Lee, 51, the company's business manager, with harboring illegal aliens. The defendants, both Korean nationals, were arraigned in federal court Thursday. If convicted, they face a maximum of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine for each count.
In addition to the criminal arrests, nine unauthorized alien workers from Mexico and one unauthorized alien worker from Guatemala were taken into custody on administrative immigration violations in conjunction with the investigation. Five of those unauthorized employees were arrested during the execution of a search warrant at the business Wednesday. Those individuals were processed for administrative removal and released on their own recognizance.
Agents also executed a second search warrant Wednesday at an apartment in Poway where the additional five unauthorized employees were taken into custody. During the search at the employees' apartment, agents seized 10 sets of counterfeit documents, which included both fraudulent alien registration receipt cards, commonly known as "green cards," and phony Social Security cards.
"ICE is committed to holding businesses accountable when they knowingly hire an illegal workforce," said Derek Benner, special agent in charge for ICE HSI in San Diego. "Employers who willfully violate our nation's hiring laws gain an unfair economic advantage over their law abiding competitors. Our goal is to protect job opportunities for the nation's legal workers and level the playing field for those businesses that play by the rules."
Agents say the investigation leading to the filing of criminal charges against the car wash executives originated with a tip from the public. According to the criminal complaint, HSI agents inspected the hiring records for the company's 17 employees in March. That audit showed that 12 of the workers had used counterfeit immigration and identity documents to obtain their jobs, and at least two of the employees had been previously deported from the United States.
According to the criminal complaint, one employee stated he was rehired and paid in cash after ICE HSI agents arrested him at the business on criminal charges for having re-entered the United States after deportation. In another instance, the complaint recounts an incident where Lee allegedly laughed when one of his workers presented him with a new "green card," asking him how much he had paid for it. On another occasion, when an employee expressed concerns about not being in the U.S. legally, the complaint alleges Lee told the worker he could come back and resume his employment at the car wash if he were deported.
Criminal prosecutions are just one of many tools ICE HSI uses to reduce the demand for illegal employment and protect job opportunities for the nation's lawful workforce. That enforcement strategy also includes the expanded use of civil penalties, employer audits and debarment. In the first 11 months of fiscal year 2011, ICE HSI initiated audits involving 2,393 employers nationwide – surpassing the record number conducted in all of fiscal year 2010. That figure includes 83 businesses in the San Diego area. During that same time frame, ICE issued 308 final fine notices totaling more than $8 million to employers across the country, again surpassing the record fine total in fiscal year 2010.