Crackdown: Large-Scale Dairy Farmer Pleads Guilty to Harboring 100 Illegal Immigrants

Enforcement advocates say Michigan case shows the need for national E-Verify system

by Kathryn Blackhurst | Updated 21 Sep 2017 at 6:50 AM

A dairy farmer in Michigan pleaded guilty Tuesday to federal charges of harboring more than 100 illegal immigrant workers and agreed to pay $1.38 million in penalties to the U.S. government.

Denis Burke, who emigrated from Ireland, owns and runs two farms in the Michigan Thumb region: Dunganstown Dairy and Parisville Dairy. While appearing before U.S. Magistrate Judge Patricia T. Morris in the Bay City federal courthouse Tuesday, Burke signed a plea agreement admitting that he did not seek legal permission to hire the more than 100 illegal immigrants employed between his two farms.

"This is a classic case of harboring illegal aliens, and must not be tolerated, especially on such a scale," Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies for the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS), told LifeZette in an email. "Not only is it unfair to Americans and legal immigrants who might have needed those jobs, it is likely that the illegal workers were exploited — just for the purpose of lining the dairy owners' pockets."

According to the plea agreement, Burke confirms that he "gave the illegal aliens free housing on or next to his farms so the illegal aliens would be readily available for work and less accessible to immigration authorities."

"By keeping the illegal workers on his farms and his farms in operation, Burke benefited financially and gained a commercial advantage over other dairy farmers who employed only legal workers," Burke's plea agreement read. "Because the illegal aliens lacked valid documentation, they could not get driver's licenses, open accounts at financial institutions so they could cash paychecks themselves, or register vehicles with the Michigan Secretary of State."

"Cases like these illustrate the need for a mandate for all employers to use E-Verify, to prevent egregious illegal hiring like this, and so that law-abiding employers don't face unfair competition," Vaughan said. "In addition, more [Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE] efforts to investigate these rogue employers should be supported with funding from Congress."

Ira Mehlman, media director for the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), also told LifeZette that he would like to see "some meaningful level of enforcement" against employers who choose to hire illegal immigrants "so that other employers get the message."

"The biggest consideration here is sending a message to other employers that ICE is paying attention, and if they catch you, it's going to hurt," Mehlman said. "And that will change the behavior of employers. When employers' behaviors change, then the behavior of people who are contemplating coming to the United States illegally will change also."

When Burke is sentenced on January 4, he could be slapped with 35 months in prison. His wife, Madeline, pleaded guilty to one count of hiring employees without verifying their legal eligibility to work in the United States and is set to receive her sentence on Thursday. The Burkes and their farms agreed to pay the government $1.38 million for their crimes, and Burke and his wife agreed to pay $187,000 and $3,000 in fines, respectively.

"I mean, a $1.38 million fine, that's more than a slap on the wrist. That gets people's attention," Mehlman said. "It is a clear signal to other employers that this could hurt if you get caught."

The Burkes weren't the only ones implicated in the illegal scheme. A police officer caught Yolanda Stewart in the act of ferrying five of Burke's illegal immigrant workers in her car back in 2013, MichiganLive reported. Stewart admitted in 2016 that she plotted with the Burkes and other farms in the area to aid the illegal immigrants they hired in buying their groceries, cashing their checks, and sending some of that money back to Mexico, the Associated Press reported.

For her crimes, Stewart was slapped with a 27-month sentence.

"The prospect of jobs in the United States is the biggest draw for illegal immigration, and the best way to deal with illegal immigration is to convince illegal aliens not to come in the first place because the employers just aren't going to hire you," Mehlman said.

"Ideally we don't want people putting their lives in the hands of smugglers or risking their life savings to get to the United States illegally," he added. "What we want is to convince them that it's just not worth it. Don't do it."

Mehlman praised President Donald Trump's emphasis on enforcing U.S. immigration laws and cracking down on illegal immigration during the first eight months of his administration. Under the guidance of Attorney General Jeff Sessions with the Department of Justice, Mehlman noted that the immigration enforcement landscape has shifted in a meaningful way.

"There was next to none being done by the Obama administration. So, there was really only one way to go from the Obama policy, and that was increasing the level of enforcement," he said, adding that continued workplace enforcement is key.

"This is what needs to happen, is that when the government catches people, or employers breaking the law, hiring illegal aliens, that there needs to be some kind of meaningful penalty," Mehlman said. "It sends a message to other employers, 'Don't do this because there can be consequences to it.' And that's the way most civil laws are enforced in this country."

"If you see the farmer down the road getting busted for hiring illegal aliens and paying ... more than a million dollars in fines, you know, it makes you think twice about it, which is precisely what deterrence is all about," he added.

Although Mehlman said that he had not yet seen any data about whether there has been an increase in workforce enforcement in particular since the Trump administration took office in January, he said that he doesn't think the Burke debacle is "a one-off action on the part of ICE," adding that it could represent "part of a new trend."

"I guess we're going to have to wait and see, look at the statistics that come out," he said.

Vaughan said she hopes that the Burkes' story represents "a sign of more work-site enforcement to come." Saying that "there should be far more of these cases prosecuted" than the number currently being pursued, she pointed to a recent case she came across.

"I know of a case in Vermont, for example, where the dairy farmer was hiring illegal aliens with impunity, and was able to get away with hiding them from the Border Patrol because under Obama, the Border Patrol was not allowed to enter farms without giving advance warning," Vaughan said. "They were housed on the farm, much like in the Michigan case, and the dairy owner even got a tax break on the land because the farmhouse was occupied by illegal workers."

"When farms become de facto sanctuaries for illegal hiring and other illegal activity, the community suffers and the farm owners just laugh all the way to the bank," she added. "It's good that they didn't get away with it this time."

(photo credit, homepage image: Gunnar Richter, Namenlos.net)

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