Cases highlight competing interests in immigration policy

PDF: Durrett lawsuit

A local federal judge calls it the most "bizarre, Alice-in-Wonderland" scenario he ever has encountered in the world of government prosecutions.

The U.S. attorney's office for the Eastern District of Tennessee is prosecuting nine illegal immigrants for the routine crime of using fake Social Security numbers to gain employment. Deportation is the routine punishment.

But those same immigrants hold rare "U" visas, which give them immunity from being deported for at least four years, courtesy of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. The immigrants were given "U" visas after an investigation revealed their employer severely exploited their illegal-worker status.

The nine workers from Mexico also are plaintiffs in an ongoing federal civil lawsuit headed up by the Southern Poverty Law Center from Montgomery, Ala. The cases alleges that Durrett Cheese Sales, Inc., in Winchester, Tenn., coerced the immigrants into working there, refused to pay them for most of 2007 and reported them to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement personnel when they complained.

During the first sentencing hearing for one of the defendants last week, U.S. District Judge Harry S. "Sandy" Mattice said the situation exemplifies "two agencies acting precisely in cross purposes" and the "ambivalence" of the U.S. Congress when it comes to immigration law.

"Given the facts of the case, I don't think it's possible for anyone to have respect for this country's immigration laws," Judge Mattice said in choosing not to jail Juana Montano-Perez, the first of nine illegal immigrants who have admitted to Social Security fraud.

In arguing for jail time, Assistant U.S. Attorney Gary Humble said Ms. Montano-Perez received her "U" visa despite her more than 10 years of immigration fraud that involved being deported once before and illegally re-entering this country.

"(She is) attempting to pull on this court's heartstrings with her tale of woe," Mr. Humble wrote in his sentencing memorandum to Judge Mattice. "Who says crime doesn't pay?"

Congress enacted the strict humanitarian "U" visa program in 2000 with the intent of helping illegal immigrants who are exploited in immigration fraud schemes. Southern Poverty Law Center senior attorney Kristi Graunke said Monday that it is not a "blanket amnesty" for all illegal immigrants and is not meant to undermine the work of the Department of Justice.

"The goal of the ('U' visa) program (was) to ensure that law enforcement could investigate crimes against non-citizens and that non-citizens could cooperate with law enforcement without fear of retaliation," Ms. Graunke stated in an e-mail. "Without the 'U' visa program ... non-citizens would be afraid that if they came forward they would automatically be deported."

Ms. Graunke and attorney Monica Ramirez, who practice in Atlanta, are representing the illegal immigrants in their lawsuit against Durrett Cheese. Ms. Graunke declined to comment specifically on the issues before Judge Mattice, stating only that it is "very concerning" to see illegal immigrants prosecuted without similar accountability for employers who break federal immigration laws.

Last summer, a Chattanooga federal jury convicted one former supervisor of Durrett Cheese for Social Security fraud. Owner Greg Durrett, who, according to the lawsuit, refused to pay his illegal workers and conspired to have them arrested under false pretenses, never has been prosecuted.

"There's a tendency to go after the low-hanging fruit," Ms. Graunke said.

During a court hearing Monday, Judge Mattice said he remained "confused and frustrated" by the issue. He refused to sentence any more defendants, ordering that the cases be consolidated and that an investigation be conducted into whether their due process rights may have been violated.

If any defense attorneys involved in the case can show such evidence, Judge Mattice said, he will consider compelling the U.S. attorney's office to reveal the documents "that served as the basis for these prosecutions."

Proof would have to be provided, he said, that local federal prosecutors consulted with the civil rights division of the Department of Justice to ensure they were "engaging in a reasonable and non-discriminatory decision-making process" with regard to the illegal immigrants' equal protections under the law.

"It's a matter of: Does the left hand know what the right hand is doing?" defense attorney Christian Lanier said after Monday's hearing. "And does (the government) even care?"