Guilty pleas pile up in case against Danny's Car Wash - KLTV.com-Tyler, Longview, Jacksonville, Texas | ETX News

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Guilty pleas pile up in case against Danny's Car Wash

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14 people were arrested and 30 others taken into custody in raids on Saturday at all 16 locations of Danny's Family Car Wash. (Source: CBS 5 News) 14 people were arrested and 30 others taken into custody in raids on Saturday at all 16 locations of Danny's Family Car Wash. (Source: CBS 5 News)
(Source: Maggie Keane, courtroom artist) (Source: Maggie Keane, courtroom artist)
(Source: Maggie Keane, courtroom artist) (Source: Maggie Keane, courtroom artist)
(Source: Maggie Keane, courtroom artist) (Source: Maggie Keane, courtroom artist)
Homeland Security Investigations agents at the scene. (Source: CBS 5 News) Homeland Security Investigations agents at the scene. (Source: CBS 5 News)

A criminal case against a metro Phoenix car wash chain accused of immigration fraud in its hiring practices has resulted in guilty pleas for half of the people arrested in a huge raid.

More cases could be resolved in the coming weeks.

The resolution of the cases raises questions about whether the workers are pointing fingers at upper management at Danny's Family Car Wash, a company with locations all around the Phoenix area. All but one member of the company's top brass have so far been untouched by the case.

The federal indictment alleged Danny's Family Car Wash knowingly fired workers who were in the country illegally and then hired some of the same people back under fake names using fake IDs.

Fourteen people, four U.S. citizens and 10 Mexican nationals were arrested in April by Homeland Security agents in raids at Danny's Family Car Wash locations in Phoenix.

[Related: Read the indictment handed up Monday (PDF)]

They are facing an assortment of charges, including conspiracy, identity theft and immigration document fraud.

Many of their family and friends who waited outside the courtroom believe Danny's employees are not to blame.

"I'm holding back my tears because I've done a lot of crying," said Vivian Ramirez, whose husband was arrested. "All I want to do is grab him and hold him because I love him so much."

One of her co-workers, Alejandra Mejia, said, "I feel like everyone was treated unfairly. There was no way all the employees were part of a conspiracy."

The indictment said there was an audit in 2012 that showed at least half of the car wash chain's workforce were illegal immigrants.

The illegal immigrants were fired but managers are accused of rehiring them and even helping the rehired workers obtain fraudulent documents assisting them in obtaining their "new" identities to help them pass an employment background check through the federal government's E-Verify system, the indictment stated.

Officials said the two-year investigation targeted the owners, corporate leadership and management of the car wash and its staffing provider, HR Betty.

"We didn't even see them coming because they were in undercover cop cars," Danny's Family Car Wash employee Obed Dominguez said.

Dominguez has worked detail at the car wash near Tatum and Paradise Village Parkway for about a year.

He said within minutes, all customers were forced to leave. Employees were rounded up into a group while agents searched their vehicles for weapons.

"The No. 1 manager was arrested first. He was making a phone call. They actually threw him against a car because he wouldn't let go of his phone," said Dominguez.

Agents questioned the workers for several hours.

"They were asking, like date of birth, where did we come from, how long we been working here," said Dominguez.

Besides the 14 arrested, 30 workers were taken into custody by ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations for administrative immigration enforcement processing based on their prior criminal and/or immigration histories.

In all, 223 people were interviewed during the execution of the warrants, which were also served at the company's staffing service provider, HR Betty.

Nick Smith, president and CEO of HR Betty, issued the following statement at the time of the arrests:

"HR Betty is compliant with the law at all times. We have assured our clients that all work as a professional employment organization (PEO) is exactly as described: professional, responsible and accountable. Marion "Mac" Magruder is the major shareholder and investor in HR Betty, but is not involved in day to day operations."

Homeland Security Press Secretary Barbara Gonzalez said, "I want to make clear for the community that this was not an immigration enforcement operation. There were individuals that were arrested criminally. There are also individuals who are being interviewed that may be in the country undocumented. They are not our priority."

Puente Arizona issued a statement that said:

"We now have proof that this was an immigration raid. The indictment unsealed today charges 14 managers at Danny's Carwashes with 'criminal responsibility for engaging in a conspiracy to employ unauthorized aliens.' In addition, 30 people supposedly detained only for questioning are now in removal proceedings because of the raid."

Carlos Garcia, organizer with Puente, said, "In Arizona, it's hard to tell the difference between Arpaio and Obama. By targeting an employer for rehiring undocumented workers, the gap between state and federal policy and practice has only narrowed. Work continues to be criminalized, and children will go to sleep without their parents tonight. While claiming to only deport criminals, the Obama administration has shown that they consider all immigrants criminals."

ICE spokeswoman Amber Cargile said, "179 individuals qualified for prosecutorial discretion under the agency's enforcement guidelines. Those individuals were released from custody within hours of being interviewed."

After the raid, Dominguez was free to go, but not before the feds seized his paycheck.

"We work really hard for our money, and we only get minimum wage," said Dominguez.

He told CBS 5 News that he has a feeling there will be some hard days ahead.

Stay with cbs5az.com and CBS 5 News for updates on this developing story.

Copyright 2013 CBS 5 (KPHO Broadcasting Corporation). All rights reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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