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Restaurant Owner Fined $400,000 For Employing Undocumented Workers

The owner of a popular San Diego restaurant and catering business is the latest employer to be sentenced for hiring undocumented workers.

Michel Malecót, owner of The French Gourmet restaurant and catering business, was sentenced Thursday to five years probation, and fined $400,000 for knowingly employing undocumented workers.

Malecót's bakery manager, Richard Kauffmann, was sentenced to three years probation, and fined $2,500.

The case is the most recent in a growing number of convictions against employers for violating federal immigration law. Convictions and fines have risen dramatically since the start of the Obama administration.

Malecót's cozy, 14-table restaurant sits just blocks from the ocean in Pacific Beach. Most of his business comes from catering, which he runs out of an expansive kitchen in the back.

Malecót, a French native, almost lost the business because of a four-year investigation into his hiring of dozens of undocumented immigrant workers over a four-year period. Malecót pleaded guilty in October.

His lawyer, Eugene Iredale, said it was his client’s big heart that got him into trouble.

“Because people who had been working for him for four or five or six years, whom he then found out were not authorized to work, he couldn’t bear to pull the trigger,” Iredale said.

Iredale concedes that’s no excuse for breaking the law, but said the government could have picked a better target to exemplify egregious violation of workplace immigration law.

He said Malecót was "not an example of an employer who deliberately violates the laws in order to exploit the vulnerable situation of undocumented workers in order to gain an unfair advantage over his competitors.”

Judge Thomas Whelan, who presided over the case, said it appeared Malecót had not exploited his workers.

Still, Federal immigration authorities do hope Malecót’s case will serve as an example.

“These criminal prosecutions really send a message to that employment sector that if you’re breaking the law, we will find you and there will be repercussions,” said Michael Carney, Deputy Special Agent in Charge of ICE Homeland Security Investigations in San Diego.

It’s part of a shift in the government’s work site immigration enforcement strategy. Following a string of dramatic workplace raids during the latter years of the Bush administration, the Obama administration announced in April 2009 that it was changing its focus to target employers of undocumented workers rather than the workers themselves.

Since then, the number of employers convicted has more than doubled — 193 of them in 2011. And they paid more than 6 million dollars in fines.

At the same time, arrests of workers were down more than 70 percent this year compared to the last year of the Bush administration.

Business leaders agree focusing on employers sends a message.

“It’s been effective," said Daniel Conway, legislative and public affairs director for the California Restaurant Association.

Still, Conway says his group supports comprehensive immigration reform, rather than simply enforcing existing laws.

In the meantime, Malecót’s experience has turned him into an unlikely advocate of E-verify, the federal system for confirming employees’ eligibility to work.

“It’s a great, great solution to the problem," Malecót said. "I’m not being me, the employer, the judge.”

More than 300,000 employers nationally are enrolled in E-Verify. However, there are concerns about the program’s accuracy. California passed a law this year prohibiting state and local government agencies from requiring contractors to use the system.

Arrests Under ICE Worksite Enforcement

Description: Criminal arrests of employers have risen steadily during the Obama administration, while administrative arrests — primarily of workers — for violating immigration laws has declined. *Includes owners, employers, managers and/or supervisors. **Primarily of workers for violations of federal immigration law. Source: U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement

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