In a case that provides a window into the underground economy involving illegal Hispanic migrants in the United States, federal authorities have charged the owner of a Chinese restaurant in Shelbyville with harboring illegal aliens.
One illegal immigrant interviewed in the case told authorities that undocumented Hispanics have telephone numbers they can call to find work at Chinese restaurants “all over the U.S.,” investigator Tracey F. Lunsford said in an affidavit.
The witness, Salavador Salazar Gomez, said illegal Hispanic immigrants could request certain jobs, such as washing dishes or cooking, and that the person who answered the phone would tell them which Chinese restaurants had openings for those jobs.
Gomez said that at one time, there were offices in Texas and Chicago that handled the job referrals, but after continued police raids the organizers switched to using phones only.
“Gomez stated that there were many phone numbers to call,” said Lunsford, an investigator with the U.S. State Department.
Fei Zhou Tang, 49, the owner of Asian Buffet in Shelbyville, was charged in a criminal complaint filed Thursday.
Tang has family members who also operate restaurants in Frankfort, LaGrange and Mount Washington, according to Lunsford’s affidavit.
Tang and several other Chinese nationals identified in the case came to the United States and filed asylum claims in New York between 1990 and 2007, Lunsford said.
Tang has lawful permanent resident status.
Lunsford said that Tang and other family members lived in one side of a duplex in Shelbyville and allegedly housed illegal immigrants in the other side, driving them to and from work at the buffet in a shopping center that Tang bought for $790,000 in 2016.
When police searched the duplex in January, there were two Hispanic men there.
Both acknowledged entering the United States illegally from Mexico after paying thousands of dollars to be smuggled across the border.
An Asian man that police found at the duplex, Hong Zhang, told authorities he paid $67,000 to be smuggled into the United States,and then requested asylum, Lunsford said.
Zhang said he had worked at the Shelbyville restaurant for 10 years.
The two Hispanic men, Cesar Diaz Ramos and Jacinto Laynez, told authorities they worked at the restaurant six days a week, 12 hours a day.
The two said they were paid in cash but did not get overtime and made below minimum wage.
When police searched the restaurant the same day, an employee named Beth Tillman told them she was aware of how illegal immigrants got jobs at Chinese restaurants through a phone service.
Tillman, who had dated the eventual witness Gomez, showed agents a number stored in her cell phone as “Chinese2,” Lunsford said.
Tillman said undocumented Hispanics used the number to find work and were charged a fee of about $700 to get to a job.
Police identified Gomez through the investigation. He had worked at the Shelbyville restaurant but been fired and was in jail in Texas.
Gomez said he had been smuggled into the United States most recently in the summer of 2017. He bought a fake birth certificate in Mexico and used it to get a Mexican passport.
Gomez said he entered the country through Laredo, Texas, but the smuggler drove him to Cincinnati, where he stayed with a cousin who also was in the country illegally.
He told police he quickly found a job as a cook at Asian Buffet in Shelbyville by calling a phone number his cousin provided, Lunsford said.
A Chinese man who spoke Spanish answered when he called and told him about the job in Shelbyville, but a Hispanic man drove him to Shelbyville, Gomez said.
Gomez said there was a fee to get the job, which differed based on the travel distance.
In his case, it cost $200 — $100 for the job and $100 for a finders, or transport, fee.
Gomez didn’t have the money, so the restaurant owner paid the fee and deducted the money from his first paycheck, Gomez told police.
Tang never asked him for documentation of his status in the country, Gomez said.
Gomez said there were three other Guatemalan workers at the duplex when he arrived.
He told authorities he lived in a small room with plywood walls and a mattress on the floor.
Gomez said he was paid $1,250 in cash every two weeks. He was never mistreated or paid less than promised, Lunsford said.
Police pressed Gomez for the names of other workers he lived with, but he said he only called them by nicknames such as “dishwasher” or “cut cut,” for the man who prepped vegetables, Lunsford said.
Lunsford said Gomez reported that he got fired after getting drunk at work on his birthday.
A marijuana joint fell from his pocket into a bowl of rice that got put on the buffet, where a customer found it, Lunsford said in her statement.
Lunsford said that she and Ricky Lynn, an investigator with the Kentucky attorney general’s office, interviewed Tang in February and asked if he knew Hispanics delivered to work at the restaurant were in the country illegally.
He laughed and said, ‘No, they had ID,” Lunsford reported.
When investigators pressed him for more detail, Tang “continuously changed the subject and refused to answer,” Lunsford said in her statement.