Two brothers accused of smuggling undocumented immigrants appeared in federal court last week and were released on bond pending a criminal trial.
Jose Alfredo Lopez Ponce and Juan Antonio Lopez Ponce, who operated J&A Framers & Carpentry, had been indicted Dec. 15 on charges including smuggling, harboring and recruiting immigrants to work at their Durham-based business.
Magistrate Judge William A. Webb released the Lopezes on $200,000 bond each and on the condition that they can't leave Durham County without prior authorization from their parole officer.
A date has not been set for their trial, but the hearing laid out the preliminary evidence for the federal criminal charges.
As the Indy has reported over the last several weeks, since January 2005, the Lopez brothers allegedly hired smugglers, known as coyotes, to bring undocumented immigrants into the U.S. to work for the business. The employers also allegedly failed to pay employment taxes while paying the immigrants less than minimum wage.
"Ninety percent of the framers employed were illegal aliens," Federal Prosecutor Dennis Duffy told the court, "and the brothers did profit from their labor without paying employment taxes."
In addition, the Lopez brothers allegedly charged the workers to live in dilapidated trailers in Eastern Durham County. Those living conditions are starkly different from those of the brothers, who, according to Prosecutor Duffy, own $2.3 million in combined assets, including two homes valued at more than $500,000.
If convicted, the Lopez brothers could forfeit all of their property to the federal government. Federal prosecutors also could file tax fraud and money laundering charges. Duffy said the brothers not only neglected to pay employment taxes but also submitted hundreds of fraudulent 1099 tax forms.
If convicted, each man faces a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison on three of the smuggling counts, plus a $250,000 fine; on the fourth count of smuggling, the penalty could include a six-month maximum sentence plus an additional $3,000 for each undocumented immigrant employed.
The situation emerged a month ago after Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raided three work sites in Cary, Apex and Chapel Hill and arrested 18 workers. Eight of those arrested pleaded guilty to misdemeanor immigration-related charges and served 30 days in the detention center, while 10 men await their indictments and court hearings.
As part of the ongoing investigation, Duffy said records seized by ICE indicate two wire transfers of $18,000 from the Lopezes to smugglers in Arizona. Ledgers allegedly show that when the crew chiefs went through the payroll, they deducted $100 from the workers' pay, indicated by the notation "coyote."
Federal investigators say they found hundreds of immigrant workers' names but could identify only 32 of them. After background checks were run on those individuals, three were found to have criminal records, including assault on a female and drug charges, Duffy said.
The Lopez brothers entered the U.S. illegally in the 1980s, according to the U.S. attorney, but married American citizens, obtained green cards and have been naturalized citizens since 2006.
The attorneys for the Lopez brothers declined to comment, as did Duffy. However, attorney George Currin told the court that the workers "were gainfully employed to frame and build houses and they were not here to commit crimes."
Judge Webb replied, "I happen to believe that if you bring people illegally into the U.S. than you are culpable for the crimes they commit."