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Lawmakers Question How Authorities Missed Fortresslike Sweatshop

August 26, 1995

EL MONTE, Calif. (AP) _ The Immigration and Naturalization Service ignored clear signs that an apartment complex served as a virtual prison for garment workers, two state senators claimed Friday during a hearing on sweatshops.

In an Aug. 3 raid on the sweatshop at the El Monte complex, investigators discovered 72 Thai immigrants who had been forced to work up to 150 hours a week.

The INS had gotten a tip about the sweatshop in March 1992 and began a surveillance. However, the federal agency took no action.

``It’s astounding to me that you had this information and you ignored it,″ state Sen. Richard Mountjoy, a Republican, said of the INS.

He said there were clear signs that something was amiss at the apartment complex, including an iron gate with spikes pointing inward and no visible signs of people coming and going to work.

William Slattery, executive associate commissioner for INS field operations, said that while agents observed trucks delivering and picking up garments, scraps and pieces of clothing, ``no evidence was obtained to support the initial anonymous information that people were being held against their will, or that aliens were involved.″

Slattery also said the U.S. attorney’s office declined to give it the warrant it needed to investigate further. The federal prosecutors said they needed more evidence before issuing a search warrant, he said.

Gov. Pete Wilson on Thursday asked Attorney General Janet Reno to investigate federal authorities’ handling of the case.

The daylong hearing stemmed from a series of raids on four Southern California sweatshops, where investigators found workers living in what they called slavelike conditions, and evidence they had been cheated on wages and overtime.

Garment makers, their immigrant employees and a representative of major retailers were called to testify.

Much of the session was filled with agitated trading of accusations _ with the INS, the U.S. attorney’s office and the city of El Monte collecting most of the complaints.

State. Sen. Tom Hayden, a Democrat, was incredulous that the INS failed to put the pieces together at the El Monte sweatshop, about 20 miles east of Los Angeles.

``It wouldn’t have been the corporate headquarters of a Fortune 500 company, would it?″ he asked Slattery of the residential complex that appeared to have no residents.

City officials said Friday they inspected the fortresslike compound twice in early and late 1993, following complaints about the iron fence and a report that a business was being conducted in the residentially zoned property.

James Mussenden, code enforcement supervisor for El Monte, said the inspections revealed nothing out of the ordinary.

Eight people pleaded innocent last week to charges they recruited the Thai nationals then harbored them as slave laborers in the apartment complex. A ninth defendant apparently fled to Thailand.

On Wednesday, authorities took 55 people from three Los Angeles sweatshops into custody. Many were being forced to work to pay off the smugglers who brought them from Southeast Asia, investigators said.

Six Thai and Laotian nationals who allegedly ran the sweatshops were charged Friday with harboring illegal immigrants. Three were released on bond. All remain under investigation to determine if they broke federal labor laws involving child labor, and payment of minimum wages and overtime.

Victoria Bradshaw, the state labor commissioner, said there is a growing cottage industry in smuggling garment workers.

``There may in fact be a ring operating to smuggle people in for the very purpose of working in sweatshops,″ Bradshaw said.

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