The immigration crackdown ordered by former Attorney General Jeff Sessions nabbed two registered Republicans and an independent from reliably red Martin County.
In April 2017, as part of President Donald Trump’s immigration crackdown, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions directed federal prosecutors to pursue cases against people suspected of harboring aliens.
Just a month before Sessions sent his memo to U.S. attorneys, three Treasure Coast businessmen set up a shell company to employ nearly 100 illegal immigrants from Guatemala at their tent-rental operation in Fort Pierce.
At the time of Sessions’ new marching orders, pundits wondered if the Trump administration would prosecute the anti-harboring laws as a way to target the Democratic leaders of such deep-blue sanctuary cities as Chicago and San Francisco, where liberals openly defied Trump’s immigration policy.
In the case of United States of America v. Tentlogix Inc., however, the dragnet nabbed two registered Republicans and an independent from reliably red Martin County.
The federal case against Tentlogix and its three middle-aged executives began in April 2016, when Barack Obama was in the White House and Trump was locking up the GOP presidential nomination but still seemed a long shot in the November election.
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Inspectors from the Department of Homeland Security’s investigative arm audited the employment records of Fort Pierce-based Tentlogix, according to an indictment.
By July 2016, Homeland Security determined that 96 employees on Tentlogix’s payroll were not authorized to work in the United States. The feds told the company that it could face criminal charges if it continued to employ the illegal workers.
Tentlogix was a thriving operation. It employed hundreds of workers and brought in $21 million in revenue in 2016, prosecutors say. The business of renting and installing tents was lucrative. Tentlogix turned a $10 million profit in 2016, federal prosecutors said.
Instead of letting go the illegal workers, prosecutors say, Tentlogix Chief Executive Gary Hendry and President Dennis Birdsall cooked up a plan to keep the immigrants on the payroll.
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A third man, Kent Hughes, established a company that would employ the illegal workers and collect a fee from Tentlogix.
Tentlogix told the 96 illegal workers to get new names and new Social Security numbers. In May 2017, Hendry and Birdsall informed the feds the illegals were off the payroll.
In fact, prosecutors say, the illegal workers were still on the job at Tentlogix, even though they were technically employed by Hughes’ company. Tentlogix posted a banner year in 2017, with revenue soaring to $36 million and gross profit jumping to $14 million.
However, the feds were suspicious, and Sessions was in get-tough mode. The Alabama Republican’s April 2017 memo stressed the usefulness of harboring laws.
“It is a high priority of the Department of Justice to establish lawfulness in our immigration system,” Sessions wrote. “While dramatic progress has been made at the border in recent months, much remains to be done. It is critical that our work focus on criminal cases that will further reduce illegality. Consistent and vigorous enforcement of key laws will disrupt organizations and deter unlawful conduct.”
In 2018, Homeland Security raided Tentlogix and detained some of the immigrant workers, said Heriberto Hernandez, a Greenacres immigration attorney who represented two of the employees.
In July 2019, federal prosecutors issued an indictment that charged each of the three company officials and Tentlogix Inc. with conspiracy to harbor aliens for purpose of commercial advantage.
The little-used law has emerged as part of the Trump-era hard line on immigration, Hernandez said.
“That’s always existed as a crime, but it was rarely enforced,” Hernandez said.
Federal law calls for a sentence of up to 10 years for a violation of the law against conspiracy to harbor aliens for purpose of commercial advantage.
Birdsall, a registered independent, pleaded guilty and was sentenced in mid-November to five years probation. Hughes, a registered Republican, pleaded guilty and was sentenced in early November to three years probation.
Hendry, a Republican, and Tentlogix Inc. also pleaded guilty. They’re scheduled to be sentenced in early December by U.S. District Judge Robin Rosenberg.