Federal authorities say the owner of the Jade Garden restaurants in Bluffton and Beaufort negotiated to hire waitresses and dishwashers smuggled into the U.S. from China and Latin America, housed them in a trailer he owned in Burton and paid them little.
Zi Tong Wang, 33, a Chinese national, was charged Wednesday with hiring, harboring and transporting illegal aliens, according to a news release from the U.S. Attorney's Office. Wang faces a $250,000 fine and 10 years in federal prison, if convicted.
Wang and 14 of his employees were arrested last month for being in the U.S. illegally when U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement agents raided the two restaurants and several residences. Wang already was considered an ICE fugitive after failing to comply with a November 1998 voluntary departure order issued by a federal judge. The order allows an illegal alien to leave the country voluntarily without being issued a removal order, which can bar someone from re-entering the U.S. legally for as long as 10 years and subject them to harsh civil and criminal penalties if they do.
Federal court records suggest authorities began looking into Wang and his restaurants when they received a tip from an unnamed local law enforcement officer who frequented the restaurant in Beaufort. The officer befriended Wang's sister, who told him that the restaurant's Chinese waitresses were in the country illegally and were being paid only in tips left by customers, according to federal court records. The woman told the officer that the women were smuggled into New York City at a cost of more than $50,000, a debt she or her family would have to pay off in $3,000 monthly increments to the smuggler, or "coyote."
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She told the officer that she or Wang would often call "a business" in New York to arrange for women to be brought to South Carolina to waitress at the restaurants, according to court documents. The workers were all housed in a trailer Wang owned on Miranda Circle in Burton and driven by the restaurant's head cook to and from work each day.
Wang made similar arrangements with smugglers in Atlanta to hire Hispanic male dishwashers, the woman said.
Wang was in federal custody Wednesday. Stephanie Jules, a spokeswoman for acting U.S. Attorney for South Carolina Kevin McDonald, declined to say where.
Attempts to reach ICE officials Tuesday for more details were unsuccessful.