A North Texas concrete manufacturing firm will pay a $3 million fine for continuing to employ undocumented workers despite warnings, the Department of Justice announced on Monday.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement determined in 2015 that more than 40 employees of Speed Fab-Crete's Kennedale plant were not authorized to work in the United States. Generally, this isn't a big deal for the company: It fires those employees and hires new ones. But in this case, Speed Fab-Crete executives shifted the undocumented workers off their books and onto those of a DFW staffing firm, and then immediately rehired them.
The firm's three owners, a top executive and the owner of the staffing firm face criminal charges for orchestrating the scheme. All five pleaded guilty late last year and face prison time.
The lead prosecutor in the case, U.S. Attorney Erin Nealy Cox, called the hiring of undocumented workers a "flagrant disregard of U.S. law." But she noted the real reason the executives were prosecuted: "Rather than working with ICE to resolve their violations, they attempted to deceive the government."
The number of investigations by Homeland Security — like the one of Speed Fab-Crete — more than doubled in 2018 from the previous year, according to the agency.
And ICE is particularly active in North Texas. It announced late last year that the region led the nation in immigrant arrests. It's also been the location of several high-profile raids, like the one in April of last year when ICE announced that they'd arrested 280 people in a raid on CVE Technology Group Inc. in Allen. It was the largest in more than a decade.
Officials often claim that these enforcement actions are designed to discourage employers from hiring undocumented immigrants. The agent in charge of Homeland Security Investigations in Dallas, Ryan L. Spradlin, said that in the case of Speed Fab-Crete, the penalties "serve as a warning to business owners willing to hire an illegitimate workforce."
But despite the mass arrests of undocumented immigrants and claims on ICE's "worksite enforcement" website that those efforts "focus on the criminal prosecution of employers," employers rarely face prosecution. Records obtained by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University show that only 11 people faced criminal charges for employing undocumented immigrants for the 12-month period beginning in April 2018. That number hasn't risen much higher than that for the last decade.
So why were Speed Fab-Crete's executives targeted? They were "stupid," according to Fernando Dubove, a Dallas immigration lawyer interviewed by The Dallas Morning News in December.
After the initial warning from ICE, Carl Eugene Hall — then vice president of plant operations at Speed Fab-Crete — proposed that Take Charge Staffing employ the workers instead. The staffing agency's owner, Mark Sevier, initially declined.
But he "struggled to find employees" and eventually relented, according to the Department of Justice announcement of the fine. Speed Fab-Crete then lied to ICE, telling the agency that the undocumented workers had been fired.
There are many reasons Texas businesses might want to hire undocumented workers. For one, they're cheaper. According to a 2016 report released by the Workers Defense Project, half of construction workers in Texas are undocumented and they make more than $3 less per hour than their citizen counterparts. They also face increased rates of retaliation, harsher working conditions and frequent wage theft.
"The Texas economy relies on undocumented labor," the report concluded.
Juliet Barbara of the Workers Defense Project said that construction is a largely unregulated industry in Texas and that "abuse is rampant." Rather than going after workers who lack the proper paperwork, she said, it would make more sense to establish a path to citizenship.
"We're in a state that is very anti-worker and pro-employer," she added.