Ex-Howard official gets house arrest for hiring illegals

LAUREL — The former human resources manager of a Mississippi company was sentenced today to six months house arrest for hiring hundreds of illegal immigrants who were rounded up in the largest workplace immigration raid in U.S. history.

Jose Humberto Gonzalez pleaded guilty in Dec. 2009 to conspiracy and admitted hiring people he knew were in the country illegally to work at Howard Industries electrical transformer plant in Laurel. Immigration agents detained nearly 600 illegal immigrants during a raid at the plant on Aug. 25, 2008.

Gonzalez is the only company official charged in the case, but the privately owned Howard pleaded guilty to conspiracy Feb. 24. It was fined $2.5 million.

U.S. District Judge Keith Starrett also sentenced Gonzalez to five years probation and fined him $4,000. Starrett told Gonzalez that he’s getting credit off his probation for the 15 months he spent waiting to be sentenced because it was delayed at the request of the prosecution due to its investigation. He was not jailed while he awaited sentencing.

Gonzalez said he didn’t set out to hire illegal workers, but didn’t do enough to stop it, either. He said he tried to get the company to implement more stringent safeguards like fingerprinting its employees, but it didn’t.

Gonzalez’s attorney, Tim Holleman, said many illegal immigrants worked at the company before Gonzalez was hired. Then, the attorney said, Gonzalez was pressured to hire Latino workers, many of whom were illegal.

The illegal immigrants wouldn’t have been working there “without people higher up being involved,” Holleman said.

Starrett said there had been no proof of that entered into evidence.

After pleading guilty last month, Howard Industries released a statement saying illegal workers used fraudulent documents to “circumvent the numerous identification checks” the company used. But prosecutors said the company knowingly employed illegal immigrants, and even hired some of them after the Social Security Administration told the company that their Social Security numbers were not valid.

Gonzalez’s attorney said that was happening before Gonzalez worked there.

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