The owner of four local Mexican restaurants, as well as two other individuals, are charged with harboring illegal immigrants after federal agents raided the eateries late Tuesday morning.
Agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Department of Homeland Security raided Don Tequila on Allen Street and Agave on Elmwood in Buffalo, El Agave on Union Road in Cheektowaga and La Divina on Delaware Avenue in Kenmore.
"Criminally, there are complaints outstanding, charging three individuals with conspiracy to harbor and seven known illegal re-entry complaints for seven known employees," said Brian Coulihan, Special Assistant U.S. Attorney. "
Ken Kelchlin has been working on a construction project next to Don Tequila in Buffalo for the past several months and witnessed that raid as it unfolded.
"I saw ICE vehicles pull up, armed men with tactical gear going into the building and handcuff all the people that were in there," he said.
Kelchlin said the suspected illegal immigrants had been transported to the restaurant in a large vehicle over the past several months.
Charged with "harboring illegal aliens" (as written within the federal complaint) are 42-year-old Sergio Ramses Mucino, who owns the restaurants, 37-year-old Jose Sanches Ocampo and 22-year-old Marguin Sanchez. All face up to 10 years in prison and fines of up to a quarter-million dollars if convicted.
According to the complaint released by U.S. Attorney William Hochul, ICE learned this past March that Mucino was allegedly employing undocumented workers and paying them in cash while one or two legal employees at each restaurant were receiving payroll checks. The complaint continues that each business grossed up to $50,000 weekly but none of that cash was reported for state or federal taxes.
The complaint also alleges that the undocumented workers were laboring up to 14 hours per day, six days each week, earning approximately $500 to $800 in cash weekly. But the investigation has found that those workers were not here against their will.
"These were, from our understanding, willful employees," Coulihan said. "They liked working there, they got paid to work there, the owners paid them in cash and provided housing for them."
About 25 undocumented workers were rounded up and face deportation. Authorities said seven of them were charged with illegal re-entry into the U.S. Two of them had previous felony convictions for prior illegal entries into the country. The others, Coulihan said, do not face criminal charges.
But Kevin Sibley, Assistant Special Agent In Charge for ICE Homeland Security Investigations, says this case highlights a broader issue of employers who create business models that utilize illegal aliens.
"U.S. employers are required to verify the identity and the work authorization of all their employees," Sibley said. "Not taking that obligation and that legal requirement seriously has consequences."
The U.S. Attorney's office says Mucino was under investigation as far back as 2014. Surveillance in July of that year, according to that office, revealed as many as 38 Hispanic individuals working at his establishments and living in nine apartments and two houses near each restaurant.
During Tuesday morning's raids, officers also seized a 2008 Ford Edge and 2016 Cadillac Escalade, which were allegedly used to transport the workers, and a 2009 Porsche Boxter that authorities say was bought with illegal restaurant funds.
Coulihan suggested agents would soon seize the houses where the illegal immigrants were allegedly sheltered.