Immigrants plead guiltyFourteen ethanol plant workers from India facing illegal immigration charges have pleaded guilty and have been sentenced to time already served in jail. Now they face deportation hearings.
FARGO (AP) — Fourteen ethanol plant workers from India facing illegal immigration charges have pleaded guilty and have been sentenced to time already served in jail. Now they face deportation hearings.
Supporters of the group say the men are victims of a human trafficking scheme. The supporters, including a Minnesota congressman and religious leaders, began a fast and prayer vigil Wednesday in Minneapolis, where the men will plead their case for staying in the United States.
The workers say they were promised $20,000 and permanent residency to help rebuild after Hurricane Katrina. They are part of a class action lawsuit that accuses an oil rig construction and repair company of subjecting workers to forced labor and poor living conditions.
The Rev. Jeff Sandgren, a pastor at a Fargo Lutheran church and an advocate for the workers, said the men want to testify in a federal investigation stemming from the lawsuit.
“It has been a long haul for these guys,” Sandgren said after Wednesday’s court hearing. “My sense is that they’re hopeful.”
Assistant U.S. Attorney Nick Chase said the claims of being lured to the country with promises of citizenship don’t make sense because the men applied for and received temporary guest worker visas. He also said the defendants were educated and had access to legal advice.
“I think it’s good that they pled guilty,” Chase said after the hearing. “I appreciate the fact we don’t have to spend any more resources on this case.”
Wednesday’s pleas came from 14 workers among a group of 23 who earlier pleaded not guilty to three counts, including possessing false claim of citizenship and false statements on an immigration document. The 14 each pleaded guilty to one count alleging the use of a counterfeit Social Security card. The others are to change their pleas next week.
The men were arrested in October at an ethanol plant being built near Casselton. Prosecutors say the Wanzek Construction company notified authorities after the workers had been employed for at least two months.
U.S. District Judge Ralph Erickson said federal guidelines called for a sentence of up to six months. The men had served about two months in the Cass County Jail.
The new pleas were entered during two hearings Wednesday, the first of which lasted more than 90 minutes. The Rev. Joseph Mundadan, who was referred to in court as “Father Joe,” translated for the defendants.
Erickson asked Christopher Glory, a leader of the workers, if Glory had any questions about the proceedings. Glory said through Mundadan that he was “happy.” He later said he has been waiting to plead guilty for two months.
“He’s been waiting to tell his story,” Sandgren said.
Saket Soni of the Workers Center for Racial Justice, who announced Wednesday’s fast and vigil, said the so-called “Cass 23” are not criminals.
“What we want is for ICE (the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency) to release these workers and for these workers to stay in the United States as witnesses in a federal investigation so that the traffickers are brought to justice,” he said.
In Minnesota, Rep. Keith Ellison and religious leaders announced they would join the fast.
“I join my friends in the faith community in solidarity with the survivors of trafficking detained by ICE,” Ellison said in a statement.