A federal judge fined a major Lexington County farm operation $1 million on Thursday for unlawfully using between 300 and 350 illegal immigrants as workers, according to filings Thursday in U.S. District Court in Columbia.
“I can’t put a corporation in jail – all I can do is impose a fine or probation,” U.S. Judge Joseph Anderson Jr. said Thursday during a 40-minute hearing at the federal courthouse in Columbia.
The $1 million criminal misdemeanor fine was levied against HW Group, LLC, a closely held family firm that serves as the umbrella group for five corporate entities, including Walter P. Rawl & Sons, a well-known, large vegetable producer. Rawl grows, sells and delivers a wide variety of fresh produce, not only in South Carolina but up and down the East Coast.
The fine is the largest ever levied against any South Carolina farm for employing undocumented workers, said assistant U.S. Attorney Jim May, who prosecuted the case. He also said the fine is “significant” nationally for the offense of hiring illegal immigrants to harvest crops.
A federal audit found the Rawl farm group hired between 300 and 350 illegal workers between 2010 and 2013, and the law allows a $3,000 maximum fine for each worker.
Most, if not all of the undocumented workers in the case came from Mexico and Guatemala, according to evidence in the case. Their credentials were a mix of counterfeit, outdated and improper visa documents, May said.
Judge Anderson stressed this case illustrates the conflicting views Americans across the nation have about illegal immigration.
On one hand, Anderson said, large numbers of immigrants cross into the U.S. illegally. On the other hand, American employers act as “magnets” because they are waiting to hire the illegals, he said
Usually, most publicity is given to the illegal workers, and some politicians promise to build walls between the U.S. and Mexico and don’t mention American employers. But on Thursday, the spotlight shone on Rawl’s operation.
“It needs to be noted,” Anderson went on, “This is a serious violation.”
Although Anderson seemed inclined, if he could, to hold Rawl’s corporate officers individually responsible, he said the $1 million fine had been worked out by prosecutors and HW Group attorneys and that his role as judge was to approve it in its entirety or reject it.
Other parts of the plea bargain worked out between prosecutors and HW Group attorneys included:
▪ A four-year probation that requires HW Group to eventually hire legal immigrant workers. HW agrees not to commit further violations.
▪ Requirements that HW Group be monitored by federal government agencies to be sure its hiring practices are lawful.
▪ Hiring training for its managers and enrolling in a federal employment monitoring program called E-verify, which normally exempts farms.
The plea deal includes a provision allowing HW Group and its Rawl affiliates 18 months to become fully compliant.
Not only is the Rawl network of farms a major Midlands business operation, the 18-month period takes into consideration that it takes time to change hiring practices and that it is difficult, if not impossible, to get Americans or legal immigrants to do farm work, May said.
Anderson described the fine as “enough to sting or hurt, and also get the attention of others who might be included to commit similar offenses and yet not wreak economic bankruptcy on the corporation.”
In court Thursday, corporate officer Karen Rawl Johnson stood beside attorney Debbie Barbier, who represented the company. Also present was Columbia attorney Greg Harris, who represented Johnson as an individual. Both lawyers are former assistant U.S. attorneys for South Carolina.
Johnson, one of the Rawl family members and the registered agent for HW Group, answered numerous questions from Judge Anderson about whether she knew she was giving up her rights to a jury trial and appeal by pleading guilty.
“Yes, sir, your honor,” she said softly, over and over.
Johnson had brought a check for $1 million to the court and handed it over.
Barbier also spoke at length about the numerous contributions HW Group and the Rawl family had made to the Midlands and to the state, contributing tons of surplus food to the needy, the homeless, churches and various charities over the years.
“This is a corporation that is extremely civic oriented and extremely charitable, not just with money, but with time, energy and resources,” Barbier said.
HW Group makes numerous other contributions to groups, including the Future Farmers of America, she said.
“I don’t believe there’s any company in the state that gives more fresh produce to charity,” Barbier said. “They are the top donor to food banks.”
According to the Walter P. Rawl website, the 91-year-old farm operation is a major producer of vegetables, including greens, corn, onions and squash. Its owners include nine Rawl family members, and it has several hundred employees. Its motto is “Our business is growing.”
The existence of the use of widespread illegal immigrants at Rawl farm operations was discovered by accident.
Several years ago, a Lexington bank notified federal authorities that a naturalized American citizen from Mexico was making large case deposits several times a month.
Upon investigation, federal agents learned that the cash came from Rawl farm operations, and the Mexican-born citizen was a go-between who got money from the Rawl operations to pay to numerous undocumented workers who worked for Rawl.
In November, Judge Anderson sentenced the go-between, Sary Mejia, 35, and her father, Lazaro Mejia, 61 to probation on the misdemeanor charge of being part of a conspiracy to employ illegal Hispanic workers at the farm.
Federal authorities agreed to go easy on the Mejias and not seek prison sentences since they tipped off law enforcement to the large numbers of illegal workers at Rawl’s farm operations.
Bill Nettles, U.S. Attorney for South Carolina, said late Thursday the Rawl case represents “a shift in thinking about illegal immigration.”
“For the longest time, the belief was that the sole solution to illegal immigration was to round up the illegals,” Nettles said.
“Now we will also be holding responsible those who hire the illegals.”