In late January, five restaurant workers were tragically killed in a house fire at a suburban home in Novi. Now, The Detroit Free Press reports that the federal government has charged Roger Tam owner of Chinese restaurant Kim's Garden and his wife Ada Lei with harboring five undocumented Mexican immigrants in their home basement.
"This case is a sobering reminder of the dangers employers create when they harbor undocumented immigrants."
According to The Detroit News, emergency crews received a 911 call from Tam at 9:31 a.m. on January 31 reporting that the two-story home was on fire. The five men — including two teenagers — were discovered in the basement, where authorities believe the blaze started. Investigators say the fire most likely began due to a careless smoker. Fire alarms in the basement appeared to have been intentionally disabled. The basement also wasn't up to code, lacking an egress window. Examiners determined the victims — Miguel Nunez Diaz, Leonel Alvarado Rodriguez, Simeon Diaz Nunez, Pablo Alvaro Encino, and Brayan Alexis Medina Contreras — died from soot and smoke inhalation after failing to escape from the basement.
Tam allegedly had a deal with at least one of the men that he could live in the basement while earning $2,000 per month working 12-hour shifts six days a week in addition to restaurant food, according to the Free Press. "He's a really good man, a really good man. He's run that restaurant for a really long time," say one of Tam's lawyers, Samuel Bennett. "He truly loved those men and boys as if they were his own family."
Records show that Tam made no mention of the men in his 911 call, telling the dispatcher that everyone was able to get out of the house. When firefighters arrived on the scene, Tam stated that he did not know the names of the men in the basement and did not have documentation for them. Federal agents raided his homes on February 3, seizing evidence including payroll documents. Tam and his wife now face up to 10 years in prison.
"This case is a sobering reminder of the dangers employers create when they harbor undocumented immigrants," says U.S. Attorney Barbara McQuade. "In order to obtain a competitive advantage by paying lower wages and evading taxes, some employers will subject undocumented workers to poor living conditions and even dangerous situations."