January 9, 2013

GULFPORT -- Three business associates of Mexican restaurants in Pearl River County have received probation on guilty pleas to a misdemeanor charge of hiring illegal immigrants.

The three and an employee had been indicted on felonies in federal court after raids shut down their restaurants in Picayune and Poplarville on Feb. 23. The charges were reduced to a misdemeanor after the fourth defendant was deported.

Restaurant owner Jose Gutierrez, 36, and business partner Juan Barajas, 58, each received three years' probation Monday in U.S. District Court in Gulfport.

Senior Judge Walter J. Gex III also ordered a money judgment of $50,000 against the two and the forfeiture of $963 in cash and $21,061.60 seized from bank accounts during an investigation by Immigrations and Customs Enforcement.

The money judgment covers the value of property at El Mariachi -- one of their restaurants on South Haugh Avenue in Picayune -- and two residential properties on Yellowbird Lane, also in Picayune.

Their El Mariachi locations, including one in Poplarville, and El Vaguero Chido in Picayune, have reopened for business.

The judge sentenced Evaristo Jimenez, 38, a former employee, to one year of probation.

Attorney Peter Barrett, representing Barajas, called resolution of the case "a fair outcome. These people are valued members of the community and they contribute to the economy."

The four defendants were each indicted on a conspiracy charge and 20 counts of harboring illegal immigrants.

Several people were deported. One was Vicente Jimenez, 39, a worker whose indictment in the illegal hiring case was dismissed.

Motions in court files show Jimenez was deported against prosecutors' wishes after an ICE agent testified there was no alternative. Jimenez had been removed from the United States in 2000 and 2006.

Attorneys argued there were legal grounds to keep him in custody pending resolution of the hiring case. Defense attorneys said he would have offered testimony in their clients' favor.

Mexican restaurant associates get probation in illegal hiring case | Gulfport | The Sun Herald