Details behind Lexington County labor trafficking case
COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - A man and his daughter have recently been sentenced after they both pleaded guilty to labor trafficking.
Batesburg residents, 37-year-old Enrique Balcazar and his daughter Elizabeth, 21, stood in front of United States District Judge Sherri A. Lydon Tuesday to be sentenced for labor trafficking, confiscating passports in connection with labor trafficking, and fraud in foreign labor contracting.
The Balcazar’s operated Balcazar Nature Harvesting, LLC (BNH) which provided seasonal agricultural labor to farms in the Lexington County area, according to court documents.
Evidence presented in court showed the Balcazar’s incorporated the business and obtained permission from the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) to recruit foreign national agricultural workers by promising it would provide particular work conditions for its workers, in 2021.
“Victims of labor trafficking deserve justice. Our communities are safe when we show that labor trafficking will not be tolerated in South Carolina,” said SLED Chief Mark Keel. “SLED will continue to work together with local, state and federal law enforcement, as well as prosecutors and other community partners, so the people and businesses that look to harm and exploit these individuals will face consequences.”
Court records showed Elizabeth traveled to Mexico and recruited 55 Mexican nationals to work for the company under an H-2A temporary agricultural worker visa.
Court documents showed Enrique used force and coercion to keep workers with BNH, including by threatening deportation, confiscating passports and visas, brandishing and discharging firearms, failing to provide medical care, placing locks on the outside of the facility where workers slept, and by posting armed guards at the camp facility.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Carrie Fisher Sherard, who prosecuted the case said during the sentencing hearing that from April 2021 to December 2021, BNH subjected the workers to forced and exploitative labor. Rather than the 40 hours of work per week promised, victims were made to work nearly twice that, and some weeks as many as 90 hours.
Sherard added the victims said they were promised three meals a day, but instead were provided two meals a day, which were improperly deducted from workers’ paychecks.
According to a press release by the U.S. Attorney’s Office, on December 2021, a federal search warrant was executed at BNH, where agents seized 23 firearms, ammunition, body armor, and at least nine victim passport from BNH. Following that search, service providers provided victim assistance and the Department of Labor investigated workplace conditions.
During the sentencing hearing, Sherard read statements from the victims.
“I came to the United States to work hard and support my family,” Sherard read. Sherard said the victims were afraid of deportation, which they said they were threatened with by Balcazar if they did not adhere to the working hours they were given.
Before being given his sentence, Enrique told Judge Lydon he was not guilty of some of the things he was accused of.
“A lot of things did not happen. I made some mistakes but I did not do what they say,” Enrique told the judge, “I never paid attention to the legal stuff, to the laws.”
The judge responded by mentioning how some of the workers eventually began to escape and speak with victim service providers, the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division (SLED), and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (HSI).
“Why would they leave secretly?” said Judge Lydon.
Enrique was sentenced to 40 months in federal prison, $11,332.90 in restitution, 3 years of Court-ordered supervision to follow his term of imprisonment, he will be placed in immigration removal proceedings following imprisonment, and 23 firearms, ammunition, body armor, and more than $32,000 in funds were ordered to be forfeited.
“You threatened the most vulnerable workers,” said Judge Lydon while explaining Enrique his sentence.
His daughter Elizabeth was sentenced separately that same day minutes after her father.
Elizabeth’s lawyer, William Camden Lewis, revealed she cooperated with investigators during the investigation against her father.
Lewis made the argument that though Elizabeth was aware of her father’s mistreatment of the workers, she was under her father’s influence.
“Though she was 18 at the time, she was still depending on her father,” said Lewis.
“If her father was able to make those people do what they did not want to do, he most certainly could do it to his daughter,” he added.
Elizabeth was sentenced to time served (two months), she was ordered to pay a total of $508,125.89 in restitution to 55 victim workers largely related to unpaid wages, plus 3 years of Court-ordered supervision, 1 year of a curfew, and 100 hours of community service at an organization that serves the immigrant community.
“I want you to be reminded that they were real victims here and they were mistreated,” said Judge Lydon.
Judge Lydon said she preferred the community service to be through an organization that works with migrants.
BHN was ordered to pay $508,125.89 in restitution to 55 victim workers, more than $32,000 in business funds were forfeited, and the business was sentenced to 3 years of probation.
“Human trafficking is among the most heinous crimes against workers, especially when employers prey on our society’s most vulnerable members,” said U.S. Department of Labor Wage and Hour Division District Director Jamie Benefiel. “These victim workers traveled far from home to provide for their families and found themselves stripped of their dignity, freedom, and basic human rights. The U.S. Department of Labor and its Wage and Hour Division are engaged in a battle to identify human trafficking, to end the misery it brings, and to hold those who callously engage in it accountable.
The case was investigated by HSI, SLED, and DOL. Assistant U.S. Attorneys Elliott B. Daniels and Sherard prosecuted the case.
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