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Convictions in the Flathead

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In late 2005, when U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents arrested seven workers employed by Kalispell-based Figueroa Framers at a Whitefish jobsite, an unidentified woman answering Figueroa’s phone characterized the event as “just a little bump in the road.”

But the road was changing even as owners Benigno and Eloy Figueroa traveled it. And on June 4, they were convicted of charges related to employing illegal immigrants.

When the Independent first covered the Figueroa story in 2005, local ICE agent Don McPherson said there had been no charges filed against any employers that year.

Although no numbers were immediately available from ICE or the U.S. District Attorney’s office, it appears the Figueroa conviction is the first in Montana in some time.

In the past, according to Tim Counts, a spokesman for ICE, there has been virtually no enforcement nationwide of immigration laws when it came to employers.

But now, he says, “Worksite enforcement has been a priority for ICE.”

Counts ties increased enforcement to homeland security issues in the post-9/11 era.

“It’s actually an issue of national security,” he says.

In 2002, there were only 25 convictions for charges related to knowingly hiring illegal immigrants, nationwide. Convictions didn’t spike until last year, when 718 were reported. This year there have already been 527.

The increasing number of convictions appears to coincide with increased political attention to immigration issues, rather than security issues per se. And, coincidentally, the Figueroa convictions came down the same day U.S. Sen. Jon Tester issued a press release detailing why he voted against a Senate bill addressing national immigration issues. In the release, subtitled “Let’s start by enforcing our laws,” Tester states, “I support reform that cracks down on employers who hire illegal immigrants.”

It appears the Figueroas are already reaping crackdown consequences.

Benigno faces a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine for transporting an illegal alien; Eloy faces the same charges, plus five years for harboring an illegal alien and six months in prison and a $3,000 fine for each illegal alien employed.

A federal judge is scheduled to sentence the Figueroas Oct. 12.

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