Sweeping immigration raids Wednesday stemmed from a document fraud investigation and focused on two popular Yakima Mexican restaurants whose owner was once convicted in connection with a drug trafficking case in Ohio.
On Thursday, 17 current or former employees of the restaurants — El Mirador I and El Mirador II — were arraigned in U.S. District Court on charges of misusing Social Security numbers or possession of counterfeit or fraudulent resident alien cards.
U.S. Magistrate Judge James Hutton set detention hearings for all of them next Tuesday. Until then, they are being held without bail in the Yakima County jail.
The defendants were among a group of 21 men and women arrested Wednesday after a series of raids that targeted both El Mirador locations — 418 W. Walnut St. and 1601 E. Yakima Ave. — as well as 11 residences and 22 vehicles across the city.
The other four defendants are expected to be arraigned today. Federal prosecutors had no comment on the case. All of the arrests were based on indictments issued two weeks ago by a federal grand jury and sealed until Thursday.
Some family members of the detained were dismayed by the turn of events.
Lidia Morales flew up from California in the wee hours of Thursday to help care for her sister’s baby after her sister, Alma Delia Parra Perez, was arrested Wednesday. Parra’s husband, Ignacio Montejano-Raya, also was detained, and Morales said there was no one to care for the 4-month-old baby.
“I feel terrible, because she’s my sister,” Morales said after the arraignment. She didn’t know exactly what the charges were or what happened, but knew her sister worked in a restaurant.
“It scares me because they’re going to separate all those kids from their parents,” she said, adding that the raids seemed random.
“It’s not fair,” she said. “They’re just looking for work.”
According to court records, the raids were linked to a series of controversial immigration raids in Ellensburg two years ago.
Those raids, which resulted in the arrests of 33 Mexican immigrants, including several women with small children, were linked to a document counterfeiting investigation that resulted in the arrest and conviction of Juan Manuel Romo Penafiel in Yakima.
According to a search warrant affidavit in Wednesday’s Yakima raids, federal agents began investigating El Mirador in 2011 after they arrested Romo and found multiple photos of El Mirador employees on his digital camera.
Romo and co-defendant David Mejia Yanez eventually pleaded guilty to counterfeiting charges and were sentenced to two years in prison and six months in prison, respectively. Both were also deported.
The search warrant affidavits connected Wednesday’s raids directly to the Ellensburg case through Romo and said an investigation resulted in the indictment of 28 current or former El Mirador employees.
The affidavit identified Abraham Brambila-Pelayo and his wife, Vilma Cecilia Brambila, as the owners of the restaurants and said they were being investigated for “knowingly hiring illegal aliens.”
According to the affidavit, Abraham Brambila has been the subject of several past investigations for drug trafficking and served 18 months in prison for his role in a 2006 Ohio case that resulted in the seizure of 61 kilos of cocaine and $2 million.
“Brambila ran a Mexican restaurant in Ohio, which was used as a front for drug activity,” the affidavit said. He plead to a charge alleging he concealed drug activity by providing false employment verification for members of the drug conspiracy.
It is unclear at this stage if anything as serious as that is being alleged against any El Mirador employees. Several indictments remain sealed.
Brambila was not arrested, and in an interview Thursday evening he questioned why his restaurants were at the center of the raids.
“I don’t know why we were targeted by immigration; we only serve food here,” he said. “We don’t create fake documents or sell drugs. Our clients know that.”
He said that 11 of the people detained were working for him, including a niece, nephew, two brothers-in-law, a sister-in-law and a father-in-law.
“They were working using their real names, but I don’t know if they were using fake documents,” he said.
Asked about the Ohio drug case, he said his mistake was in trying to help a friend.
“I provided a work letter to someone, so he could rent an apartment,” he said. “I didn’t know he used the apartment as a place to sell drugs. That mistake cost me (many) months in prison. … I’ve already paid for it. The last thing I want in life is to get in trouble with the law.”
Laura Contreras, directing attorney for the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project’s Granger office, criticized the raids for going after “everyday people,” rather than what ICE has identified as its enforcement priorities: deporting serious felons or individuals who pose a serious risk to national security and public safety.
“It makes no sense to criminally prosecute a few hardworking people who have nothing to do with ICE’s real enforcement priorities,” Contreras said. “We see big flashy pictures of raids in the paper and TV, but once all this is sorted out, the majority of folks are probably going to be everyday people who are just caught up in the raid.”
Paola Zambrano, an immigrant activist in Yakima, said she understands that criminals should be held accountable, but people just seeking a way to support their families should not be caught up in raids.
“It is unfair to capture people who just want to work and separate them from their families,” Zambrano said. She is an active volunteer with various organizations such as Amigas Unidas, OneAmerica, Barrios Unidos and the Yakima School District.
“Sometimes the people who buy (fake) documents only do it to be able to work. This is what it causes our current immigration system,” she said. “What we need now is comprehensive immigration reform that doesn’t allow people to violate the laws.”
• Yakima Herald-Republic reporter Molly Rosbach contributed to this report.