HOUSTON – La Espiga De Oro (Espiga) forfeited $1 million as a result of a felony conviction of conspiracy to induce and encourage unlawful immigration through a pattern and practice of hiring and employing illegal aliens at the tortilla factory, announced Acting U.S. Attorney Abe Martinez and Special Agent in Charge Mark Dawson of Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations (HSI). Owners Alfredo Sosa Lira, 72, his wife Lydia Botello-Lira, 68, their daughter Lydia Lira, 25, and night manager Roberto Guerra, 45, all of Houston, pleaded guilty to misdemeanor violations associated with their continued employment of undocumented aliens between October 2011 and August 2015.
“Employers who knowingly hire immigrants with fraudulent or suspect documents face serious consequences under the law,” said Martinez. “This company violated the law by allowing more than half of its employees to work as undocumented immigrants. The $1 million forfeiture will help pay for the investigation and assist immigration authorities in their continued pursuit of employers who engage in similar conduct. Enforcement of our immigration laws is serious business and employers must only hire those with legitimate documentation to demonstrate they are legally in the United States.”
Espiga has been in operation since 1977 and is located on the 1200 block of 15th Street in the Heights in Houston. The company manufactures tortillas for distribution to restaurants and businesses throughout Texas, Louisiana and Colorado.
A series of complaints about the company’s hiring practices between 2008 and 2010 led to the HSI investigation. An undercover operation later led to evidence that the company knowingly hired aliens not authorized to work in the United States. In some instances, the company knew that aliens used fraudulent documents to secure employment. The illegal immigrants were from Mexico, Guatemala and El Salvador.
“Those who think that they can build their businesses by taking advantage of vulnerable individuals will ultimately see their day in court,” said Dawson. “Today’s plea shows that companies will be held accountable for violating our nation’s laws.”
HSI executed a search warrant at the company on Aug. 4, 2015, which led to the discovery of 10 illegal aliens working there as well as evidence demonstrating that 55% of their employees were not authorized by law to work at the factory. One long-term employee that the company knew to be employed illegally was injured on the job and received a settlement under her true name after using an alias for more than six years. The company owners and managers continued to employ this alien knowing that she was illegally in the United States.
Following the search warrant, the company was charged by criminal complaint and began cooperating with HSI and the U.S. Attorney’s Office to revise their hiring practices and implement new procedures to prevent future violations of federal law.
The company paid $1 million, representing an amount that at least equals the value of property used to facilitate the crime, the value of wages paid to the unauthorized work force and the value of products manufactured and services provided by the illegal workforce during the conspiracy. This money will go directly to immigration authorities to assist them with their future enforcement efforts.
U.S. District Judge Gray Miller accepted the company’s plea as well as that of the owners/managers. Alfredo Lira, Botello-Lira, Lydia Lira and Guerra were sentenced to time served – the 18 months they were forced to serve on court-imposed supervised release during the course of this prosecution. The company itself will be on probation for a term of 12 months.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) also had actions against Espiga for labor-related violations. OSHA settled with Espiga on Aug. 23, 2016, with Espiga paying $85,360 and Espiga must correct the hazards that OSHA had identified. There are also provisions in that agreement requiring Espiga to protect the employees while the hazards are being addressed.
HSI conducted the investigation. Assistant U.S. Attorneys Julie Searle and Edward Gallagher prosecuted this case.