COUNTRYSIDE, Fla. - The owners of a popular Chinese buffet in Countryside have been sentenced for harboring, transporting, and exploiting illegal aliens after a Homeland Security investigation that began in 2011.
"An event that started in a foreign country. People were smuggled in," explained Homeland Security Public Safety Group Supervisor Ritchie Flores.
According to Flores, Chopsticks owners Jenny Huang and Guang Lin shuttled their 27 employees back and forth from cramped apartments nearby. They shared 3 units, at times sleeping just inches apart, and worked 18-hour days, 6 days a week.
Fourteen of them were undocumented workers.
At one point during the investigation, the restaurant shut down because the majority of its staff were considered victims of the crime.
"We did the math. It comes out to about $3 per hour," Flores said.
It's unlikely that any customers ever made contact with them in person. They rarely worked in the dining room, hidden mostly in the kitchen.
But one customer saw them regularly, except she saw them leaving next door to her apartment. She plans to stop dining at Chopsticks.
"Every single day, especially in the morning, I've seen this van coming and pick them up," explained Nadja Nahir. "If people are treated like that, which I think is very unfair, nobody should be treated like that, of course."
Donna Lancaster, President of Zonta Club Pinellas, a local advocacy group that offers support for human trafficking and exploitation victims, calls Florida a ripe ground for such crime because of its access to ports and seasonal labor.
"Slavery. Pure slavery. Just slavery of human beings that are being totally exploited," Lancaster said.
Both Huang and Lin must pay $15,000 fines. Huang faces 60 months of probation. Lin faces a year in prison.
Homeland Security is now investigating where the victims came from, and whether they will lead agents to even more criminal activity.
"How these subjects came into the US, how they were smuggled into the US. Were they trafficked into the US?" Flores said.