A Korean man was convicted of seeking visa extensions for Thai welders purportedly hired for a construction job when in reality they were forced to work at restaurants and live in deplorable conditions, prosecutors said on Wednesday.
Yoo Taik Kim, 55, was found guilty by a federal jury in Los Angeles on Tuesday of visa fraud and lying on his citizenship application.
The case was part of a broader investigation into a labour deal that Thai welders claimed promised them legitimate jobs for an American steel company but subjected them to intolerable conditions at the hands of Kim’s manpower company.
Kim helped bring 49 welders to the United States on temporary visas in 2002 to work for Trans Bay Steel in northern California, but only 10 of the workers actually ended up working for the steel company, according to court papers filed by federal prosecutors.
The rest toiled for him at Thai restaurants he operated in Los Angeles and Long Beach for little or no pay and lived in cramped conditions – one home initially lacked furniture and another electricity – and were told they would be arrested if they dared to leave, court papers said.
In 2003, Kim sought to get visa extensions for 25 of the welders, even though 20 of them had never worked at Trans Bay and the company did not authorise the extensions, prosecutors said. That prompted authorities to file criminal charges against Kim.
“The defendant’s actions hurt a lot of people including the Thai workers and ultimately the system itself,” said Keri Curtis Axel, an assistant US attorney in Los Angeles who prosecuted the case.
Kim was also found guilty of lying about his work for the manpower company on his application to naturalise in 2005 – a conviction that will strip him of his American citizenship.
Defence attorney Raul Ayala said Kim lacked an understanding of US immigration and labour laws and did not have proper plans when he brought the workers here through Kota Manpower.
Rather, Kim felt an obligation to follow through after recruiting the workers in Thailand, and tried to find other employment for them after Trans Bay’s request was reduced, Ayala said.
“It really showed how inexperienced they were in dealing with the United States labour laws and immigration regulations, but I don’t believe it ever was with the intent to bring the workers to exploit them in any way,” Ayala, a deputy federal public defender, said.
Kim, who is currently out on bail, was convicted for two counts of visa fraud, four counts of false statements and one count of unlawful procurement of naturalisation. He is scheduled for a bail review hearing on December 1 and sentencing on February 27.
The conviction follows a civil case brought by the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) on behalf of 48 of the Thai workers alleging they were subject to human trafficking. In 2006, the commission reached a settlement with Trans Bay that won up to US$7,500 (Bt234,376) for each of the workers.
The commission also obtained trafficking visas for 39 of the welders who never got to work with Trans Bay, which enabled them to remain in the country legally, said Chanchanit Martorell, executive director of the Thai Community Development Centre, which received the first complaints from the workers and assisted them.
Federal prosecutors declined to prosecute the case on trafficking charges, which prompted the workers to seek relief through the EEOC. But getting a criminal conviction against Kim meant a lot to the welders – many of whom continue to live in California and have been reunited with family, Martorell said.
“We are elated that finally, the welders can put all of this case and what has happened to them to rest,” she said. “There is now a sense of closure.”